August 10, 2012
Originally published at Dallas Morning News
Those without papers are often described as living in the shadows, a tired phrase that perhaps survives because it very neatly captures the predicament.
If your life is defined in this manner, you can see the world but the world doesn’t see you, or at least doesn’t see you in all your dimensions. A part of our labor market depends on this arrangement, whether we like it or not.
Years ago, a story on one of these shadowy folk created quite a stir in journalistic circles because the subject was named and photographed in a Page One story, when that term meant more than it does today. But that’s not what made news. The furor erupted when immigration authorities, using the information contained in the article, promptly arrested the subject of the profile and journalists and others angrily debated naming those “in the shadows.”
There are no easy answers to this one. As an editor, I argued that we had a responsibility to describe, with some specificity, the risks people would run if they volunteered to have their names appear in a story. I felt—and to some extent still feel—that we had an obligation to do so because many of the people we write about are not always aware of the personal risks.
A lot has changed on this front. There’s something called National Coming Out of the Shadows Week, which includes specific instructions on how to “declare yourself undocumented.” The shift began with the immigration protests in 2006, and now it is pretty common to see young people publicly brand themselves in this fashion.
As we write, the UndocuBus is making its way east, twelve days into a journey that began in Phoenix and will end at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Many of the people on board have one thing in common: they are here illegally.
In fact, they wear their illegality on their sleeve, as well as on t-shirts, placards and banners strung across the bus . No Papers, No Fear–Sin Papeles, Sin Miedo–is the official slogan.
The bus has already crossed Texas, uneventfully by all accounts, in case you’re wondering. Austin, we hear, was welcoming. The road trip will go through Georgia and Alabama, where new immigration laws pose a considerable risk, at least on paper.
I caught up with it the travelers this morning, by phone, when the bus was still in the Big Easy.
What’s been the reception?
“We’re drawing a lot of energy, a lot of strength,” said Maria Cruz Ramirez, 46, a mother of three from Mexico who has been in the United States for 11 years.
I detected no fear in Maria.
Two of her children went even more public with their status by taking part in an act of civil disobedience directed at Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Arizona lawman whose take prisoners approach to immigration now has him as lead defendant in a federal civil rights trial.
Her two kids, also undocumented, spent several nights in jail as a result of their very public protest. Ramirez sees the bus ride as part of the same strategy—to bring attention to a population that is all around us and at the same time invisible.
“We should be seen with respect, and treated with dignity,” Ramirez told me. “Just because we don’t have documents doesn’t mean we don’t have rights.”
I wondered at the reception the bus has gotten. Perhaps by design, contact with the world is generally limited to host communities in each city. Still, these people are now out there, literally and figuratively, so the potential for adventures is in theory around every corner.
“We have gotten looks, and some comments, along the way,” said Tania Unzueta, a spokeswoman who is along for the ride. It is pretty tepid stuff. Someone in a car offered something rude. On the other side of the equation, some people offered raised fists in solidarity.
Ramirez had never ventured from Phoenix. Not having papers, somewhat paradoxically, roots you in place. The bus has broadened her vistas, in many ways. And she says she is the better for it.
“Each state is like being in our own house,” she told me.
No doubt that reflects the reception she and the others are getting from immigration rights groups. But the way she said it resonated in another way. People who live in the shadows are now everywhere, and so everywhere to some extent is home to them.
Even when you’re on a bus, rolling east, in the sunlight of a southern summer.