On Sunday night or early Monday, about three dozen people are planning to set out on a six-week bus voyage through the dark terrain of American immigration politics. Their journey is to begin, fittingly, in the desert in Arizona, national capital of anti-immigrant laws and oppressive policing. It will wind through other states where laws and failed policies force immigrants to toil outside the law — New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee — and end in North Carolina at the Democratic National Convention.
There is something very different about this particular protest. Many of those planning to ride the bus are undocumented and — for the first time — are not afraid to say so. Immigrants who dread arrest and deportation usually seek anonymity. These riders, weary of life in the shadows and frustrated by the lack of progress toward reform, will be telling federal authorities and the local police: Here are our names. This is our plan. If you want us, come get us.
The momentum for this daring ride, called the “UndocuBus,” began building last Tuesday at the federal courthouse in downtown Phoenix. The immigrants’ nemesis, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, was testifying at trial that day about his office’s long history of racial profiling and discriminatory policing. Out on the street, the midday glare off the pavement was blinding. Four unauthorized immigrants — Leticia Ramirez, Miguel Guerra, Natally Cruz and Isela Meraz — sat blocking traffic and waited to be arrested. They were taken away in cuffs to spend the night at Sheriff Arpaio’s red-brick jail on Fourth Avenue.
Their civil disobedience should not have been necessary. Hopes for reform were high in 2006, a year of huge, peaceful pro-immigrant marches in cities across the country, after which Congress entertained comprehensive reform that had strong bipartisan support. But Republicans killed the bill, and the years of inaction that followed crushed immigrants’ hopes while reinforcing the broken status quo — to the benefit of border vigilantes, the private-prison industry, the engorged homeland security apparatus and hard-right ideologues who started planting neo-nativist laws in legislatures across the land, starting in Arizona.
As Sheriff Arpaio quickly recognized, demonizing the undocumented was a potent political tool: once an immigration moderate, he recast himself as a relentless hunter of “illegal aliens.” With federal powers delegated to him by the Homeland Security Department, he spent years conducting “saturation patrols” in Latino neighborhoods of Maricopa County, abusing and terrifying those with brown skin.
All this time, as promises were broken and reforms went nowhere, as President Obama ratcheted up deportations to record levels, and as Republicans intensified their assaults, the immigrants lay low. But then groups of students, working outside the regular channels of immigrant advocacy, bravely “came out” as undocumented and demanded justice — and won from Mr. Obama a promise not to deport them.
A few more immigrants have now chosen to come out of the shadows. It is impossible to know how many of the 10 million to 12 million undocumented might dare to do the same. And while each and every one of them deserves a chance to get right with the law, one provocative bus trip may well seem like a voyage to nowhere, given the dismal state of Congress and the low odds of immigration reform.
But this small group has already won an important victory, a victory against fear. At the cramped offices of Puente Arizona, the Phoenix organization behind the “UndocuBus,” volunteers kept busy last week updating calendars and working phone banks. They made papier-mâché masks and silk-screen posters, and decorated plastic buckets for drumming. There was packing to be done, a bus to be painted. Saturday was the day for a march, Sunday will be for the gathering in a city park, for eating, singing and saying goodbyes. After that, the bus will roll.