In Defense of Civil Protest

Originally Published in The Atlantic

The gray rain that shrouded Charlotte during the Democratic National Convention was pouring as I walked through the dark parking lot of El Siloe Church toward a deceptively cheerful-looking blue Greyhound bus. It took a few shouts to get the attention of the people sitting inside, but after a moment, I was greeted by B., the person who works with the press for No Papers, No Fear. "I'm sorry for being short with you," he said later. "I'm just trying to get our people out of jail."

Inside the church gymnasium, I met Miguel and Fernando, two of the thirty-seven people who ended up joining the bus that set out from Arizona on the road to Charlotte one month ago. Neither man has a current visa or Green Card, and neither is an American citizen. Yet Miguel has lived and paid taxes in the United States for 14 years, and Fernando told me that almost all of the riders have been here for more than a decade.

They come from many places - El Salvador, Mexico, Ecuador, and Nigeria, among others - but they call the U.S. their home. "Sin Papeles, Sin Miedo," or "No Papers, No Fear" reads the giant black writing on the side of their bus, and they have stopped in Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, and other southern states across the U.S. to share this message with the press and work with members of the Latino community to make illegal immigration and deportation a bigger part of the national dialogue in the lead up to the 2012 elections.

Before leaving Arizona in July, several of the riders had already faced arrests and jail time for peaceful protests, including Miguel, who was arrested during a peaceful protest outside of Phoenix's Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. Courthouse by Sheriff Joe Arpaio in July. On Tuesday, ten of the riders were arrested in downtown Charlotte during a non-violent protest at the DNC; they were released later this week. "I have to admire them," said Fernando. "Not everyone does this... they know that if they get arrested, it may not just be a few days in jail - it might mean months or even deportation proceedings."

If the stakes are that high, why would a bus full of people who illegally live and work in the U.S. publically declare themselves in front of police officers and press members? What change can a handful of protestors - joining the ranks of the many, many other protestors who descended upon the DNC - actually create, especially given that President Obama has long been the democratic nominee for president in 2012?

If one of the aims of No Papers, No Fear is to prompt dialogue by drawing the attention of the national press, they have succeeded - several articles have been written about their efforts, including pieces in the New York Times and on NPR and NBC News. But when I spoke with B. at El Siloe, he was trying to find a sidewalk with an awning downtown, worried that journalists would not stand in the rain for a 10:30 pm press conference about the riders in jail. The bus make stops in Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and a few other places before heading back to Arizona, where Miguel and Fernando will return open deportation cases.

Mitt Romney has said that he "opposes all 'magnets' that entice illegal immigrants to come [to the United States]," and as governor, he "vetoed in-state tuition benefits... and opposed driver's licenses for illegal immigrants." Even if President Obama does get elected to a second term, he was unable to pass the DREAM Act in 2010, and the deferred deportation policy created by President Obama and Janet Napolitano this summer only applies to people under the age of 30 who meet certain qualifications. Fernando, 21, and Miguel's daughter, 15, may fit within the demographic that could benefit from this policy, but Fernando did not think this is enough. "It's not just about one generation," he said. "It's about mothers and families and migrant workers... it's about the whole community."

As I rode away from the church with a friend who was giving me a ride, he observed that No Papers, No Fear is unlikely to affect the national conversation about illegal immigration, and more importantly, it is unlikely to change the opinions of those who disagree with their arguments for deferred deportation.

While gauging the overall impact of any protest or movement is clearly impossible, I suspect that he may be correct, at least in part. Those who disagree with the many versions of DREAM Act that have been introduced in Congress or other efforts to create deferred deportation policies for immigrants without criminal records are unlikely to read articles about No Papers, No Fear published here or elsewhere, and they are even more unlikely to be persuaded to change their minds, despite the emotional appeal of the riders' mission.

Yet, regardless of one's position on the broad issue of immigration, No Papers, No Fear should give us pause.

Arizona is not a great place for people without papers right now, said Fernando, "...and those who stayed, stayed to resist and fight back." With no elected officials to represent them and the threat of possible deportation looming, these people decided to board a bus and ride hundreds of miles across the country so that others like them might be a little less afraid to drive to work, a few members of the press might give a brief nod to their daily hardships, and they can publically declare themselves fully part of the United States after living here for many years. They boarded the bus because they have no advocacy tools other than their voices, despite the very real risk that their actions would result in arrest, jail time, or deportation.

If Miguel were to become an American citizen, he would want to own his own business, he said. If his deportation case moves forward, he will leave behind 14 years of his life, a wife, and three kids, two of whom were born in the United States. For him, coming to the DNC was less of a choice than a final gesture of hope that democracy can actually work, that defending a belief peacefully, publically, and at serious personal risk can change our policies.

There is nothing democratic about a national convention held to celebrate a candidate who has been the presumptive nominee since April and the assumed nominee for much longer - this kind of protest is a much more meaningful form of political action. The No Papers,

No Fear riders are not American citizens, but their efforts indicate the seriousness with which they take our political process and want to be acknowledged as full members of our community. That should be enough to make anyone, critic or not, seriously reconsider the way that immigration is handled in our country and talked about in this election.

-- Emma Green

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