Illegal immigrants' road trip: riding a 'freedom' bus or flouting the law?

About 30 illegal immigrants set out Aug. 1 for a cross-country, 'no papers, no fear' bus trip. Supporters say the riders are highlighting the need for immigration reform. Detractors say they are thumbing their noses at the law and should be detained.

Nick Oza/AP
Leticia Ramirez, in front, and Isela Meraz, both of Phoenix, block the intersection before getting arrested by Phoenix Police July 24, in a protest against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Ms. Meraz is now one of the undocumented immigrants riding a bus to the Democratic National Convention.

Inside a small, bright orange building in central Phoenix, rebellion is in the air as young Latinos file in and out of a room, dropping backpacks and suitcases on the floor in preparation for an unusual act of civil disobedience.

They want the world to know that they are living in the United States without proper legal status, something most people in the same situation strive to keep secret for fear of deportation. About 30 students, mothers, and day laborers this week set out on a bus headed to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., that starts Sept. 3, to cast a spotlight on what they say are flawed immigration policies.

Along the way, the group plans to stop in states that, like Arizona, have adopted – or tried to adopt – strict laws to discourage illegal immigration. On Sunday they are in Austin, Texas, after stops in Colorado and New Mexico.

“To me, it’s about being undocumented without being scared,” says Isela Meraz, a 29-year-old bus rider. “I feel I’ll be representing a lot of people who are afraid of coming out of the shadows.”

The riders plan to be a thorn in the side of the Democratic Party, which they blame along with the Republican Party for the lack of progress on immigration reform. The fact that the Obama administration has deported a record number of illegal immigrants is not lost on them.

Still early in their “no papers, no fear” cross-country journey, the bus riders already have stirred controversy. On Aug. 1, they were the subject of a debate in the opinion pages of The New York Times, with some expressing support for the actions of the protesters and others condemning them.

“Anytime illegal immigrants advertise where they are, it seems to me that makes them high priority for detention,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration laws. “ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] needs to pull the bus over, put them in detention, and then remove them.”

ICE officials won’t say if intercepting the bus is a possibility, stressing instead that the agency prioritizes the deportation of people responsible for crimes and other serious violations.

“ICE uses discretion on a case-by-case basis, based on the merits of an individual’s case and a comprehensive review of specific facts,” spokeswoman Amber Cargile said in a recent statement after ICE released four arrestees, all of whom lacked legal status. They were among protesters who took to Phoenix streets during a racial-profiling court case against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Ms. Meraz was one of the people arrested for blocking traffic. Riding the bus is merely a progression of the civil disobedience she has chosen to engage in to shake up perceptions about people like her, she says.

“I want people to get to know us. We are not that different from everyone else,” she says of immigrants without papers. “We are all here together in this society, working and doing the kind of things that people need to do for families to survive.”

By hopping on the bus, Meraz, who was 8 years old when her family came here from Mexico, hopes to encourage others here illegally “to come out and be proud, to no longer feel fear and be ashamed.”

Like the other riders, she is aware of the risks of making the journey. Among the planned stops are Georgia and Alabama, states where police can check the immigration status of certain detainees. The riders have been schooled in the laws of such places, and if necessary, lawyers are ready to respond.

But Meraz says she is not thinking about the police or immigration agents. She is focused on sharing her story.

“All my life I heard that we shouldn’t talk about being undocumented,” she says. “Now I can talk about it; I feel proud.”

Ireri Unzueta Carrasco, who came to Phoenix from Chicago to ride the bus, is doing it to take a stand for immigrant rights. Because she was a child of 7 when her parents brought her into the US illegally, she could benefit from the US Department of Homeland Security’s announcement that it would not deport eligible undocumented youths.

“I feel like I lost my fear a long time ago,” says Ms. Unzueta Carrasco, age 25. “And I want to support people who might be taking a bigger risk.”

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