PHOENIX — A growing number of undocumented immigrants in Arizona and other states are taking immigration protests to a new extreme, staging acts of civil disobedience by deliberately getting arrested in order to be turned over to federal immigration officials.
Often wearing T-shirts declaring themselves “undocumented and unafraid,” the protesters have sat down in streets and blocked traffic, or occupied buildings in several cities including Phoenix and Tucson.
Dozens of protesters have been arrested, but in almost every case, federal immigration officers have declined to deport those in the country illegally. Protesters say they are planning more acts of civil disobedience.
The acts are intended to openly defy stepped-up immigration enforcement that has led to record deportations over the past three years. In Arizona, protesters are focused now on enforcement of a portion of the state’s Senate Bill 1070 immigration law.
By getting arrested, immigrants say they are making a point: Illegal immigrants who are part of this country shouldn’t have to live in fear of being deported and deserve to live here legally. They also think immigration authorities are less likely to deport illegal immigrants arrested in public because the government doesn’t want the negative attention.
“Honestly, I can tell you I have never felt as free as when I was sitting in the middle of the street and when I was chanting â??undocumented and unafraid,'” said Daniela Cruz, 21. She is one of six undocumented immigrants arrested in March after blocking an intersection in front of a school in west Phoenix.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say unwanted publicity has nothing to with the agency’s decision not to take action against the protesters. In most cases, the agency has issued statements saying the protesters simply did not meet the agency’s priorities of deporting criminals, recent border crossers and egregious immigration violators.
Still, undocumented immigrants could be taking a chance if getting arrested leads to a criminal record that could prevent them from gaining legal status in the the future.
Frustration spurs action
The rise of civil disobedience shows how some immigrant groups are turning to more-extreme measures out of frustration that the marches, work stoppages, voter drives and boycotts of the past have not worked. Reforms that include a proposed legalization program for millions of undocumented immigrants have not passed Congress, and deportations keep going up.
Last fiscal year, ICE deported a record of nearly 397,000 immigrants. ICE is on pace to deport as many or more this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Comprehensive immigration reform likely won’t be addressed again until next year at the earliest.
“Immigration reform has been on the national agenda for more than 10 years with no progress, and so I think that is one of the reasons we are seeing an uptick in the level of civil disobedience,” said Chris Newman, legal programs director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, an advocacy group in Los Angeles that has worked with groups that engage in civil disobedience.
Carlos Velez-Ibanez, director of Arizona State University’s School of Transborder Studies, said the rise in civil disobedience is the result of a new crop of leaders who are inspired by some of the tactics of the civil rights and Chicano movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
“In this case, people (immigrants) are putting themselves in harm’s way to make the point of the unfairness of these laws,” Velez-Ibanez said.
Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., that supports tough immigration enforcement, doesn’t think civil disobedience now will sway public opinion to the degree that the civil-rights movement did.
“It’s not clear to most Americans that this is analogous to the civil-rights movement. In the civil-rights movement, you had American citizens demanding equality. In this case, you have people who aren’t supposed to be in the country demanding the rights of citizens, and to most Americans, or at least a large fraction, that is not roughly the same thing.”
Groups such as the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, Dream Activist and Puente Arizona, which is based in Phoenix, are only a few years old or less. But they have quickly built national followings through the use of websites, Facebook, email blasts, Twitter and YouTube videos to promote civil disobedience. They also attempt to rally public support for individual cases of undocumented immigrants facing deportation.
Jonathan Perez, 25, a member of National Immigrant Youth Alliance, said he has seen an evolution in the undocumented-immigrant movement.
“Two or three years ago, people wouldn’t come out. They were even afraid to be on camera,” said Perez, an undocumented immigrant from Colombia who lives in Los Angeles.
Then, growing numbers of undocumented students known as “dreamers” began appearing on television and in front of Congress to tell their stories in hopes of generating support for the Dream Act, a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship if they attended college or joined the military.
The turning point came in May 2010, when a group of protesters dressed in caps and gowns staged a sit-in at the Tucson offices of Republican Sen. John McCain, Perez said. Among the four protesters arrested were three who were in the country illegally. It was the first time students had deliberately gotten arrested and risked deportation in an act of civil disobedience, according to Perez and other activists familiar with the incident.
Since then, civil disobedience in Arizona and around the country has steadily increased.
More civil disobedience may now be on the way. Local police are about to begin enforcing the so-called “show me your papers” provision of SB 1070 following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that rejected an argument that the provision is unconstitutional.
That provision requires police officers to check the legal status of a person stopped or arrested under certain conditions during investigations or traffic stops.
To protest the law, organizers from Puente Arizona say they are considering civil disobedience, including getting arrested by blocking streets.
“It’s empowering,” said Carlos Garcia, director of Puente Arizona. “But what it really comes down to is challenging the law itself and us being able to tell the stories of undocumented people and why they are risking everything.”
In July, Puente created a Facebook page to drum up support for the “UndocuBus.” About two dozen undocumented immigrants rode the 1970s-era passenger bus on a six-week trip across the country that began in Phoenix and ended in Charlotte. Along the way, the bus, painted bright turquoise with butterflies and the slogan “No papers no fear” on the sides, made stops in 15 cities, including Knoxville, Tenn. In that city four of about 50 protesters blocking a city street were arrested on Aug. 28. They were protesting the local sheriff’s participation in a federal program that gives local police the authority to enforce federal immigration laws.
The UndocuBus’s trip culminated with a protest that blocked an intersection near the site of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
Among the 10 people arrested there was Phoenix resident and UndocuBus rider Gerardo Torres, 41, an undocumented immigrant from Aguas Calientes, Mexico.
Torres, a handyman, said it wasn’t until the night before, during a meeting at a local church, that he decided to get arrested.
“I wanted to prove the point to the (undocumented) community that when we are together and we are united, we have a lot of power,” said Torres who said he has been living in the country illegally since 1993 when his six-month tourist visa expired.
Torres conceded, however, that he knew the chances of being put into deportation proceedings were slim since he has no criminal record.
After spending about 10 hours in jail, Torres was released. ICE declined to pursue deportation against the 10 protesters.
While ICE has not pursued deportation against most of the protesters, they are still taking a chance by getting arrested.
In September, Cruz, the undocumented immigrant arrested in March for blocking the intersection at the school, went to court to fight two misdemeanor charges. A judge found Cruz guilty of the two charges. Now she has a criminal record.
Cruz said she doesn’t know if her record will hurt her chances of applying for any future legalization program, or for President Barack Obama’s deferred action program, which lets young undocumented immigrants apply to stay and work temporarily in the U.S. without the threat of deportation. Department of Homeland Security officials have said applicants for deferred action with records of disobedience will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
But Cruz has no regrets.
“To me, even after I was found guilty, it was more than 100 percent worth it,” she said.”We showed our community that once we come out, we are a lot safer.”