Days before a bus filled with undocumented people and their allies was to take off from Phoenix, Arizona, one rider was interviewed by the New York Times. The reporter asked, “Last month when I interviewed you, you wouldn’t tell me your full name. Now you will. What changed?” The rider responded, “I am no longer afraid.”
48 hours later Letty Ramirez, Miguel Guerra, Natally Cruz, and Isela Meraz, stepped off the curb outside of Sheriff Arpaio’s racial profiling trial and into the street with a banner that said, “No Papers No Fear.” They announced themselves as undocumented and unafraid of the Sheriff finally on trial. The thing that had kept them at times house-bound, and most afraid was the thought of ending up inside Arpaio’s jail. Now, the four were entering willingly as part of an act of civil disobedience and the start of what would be a six week odyssey, the No Papers No Fear Ride for Justice that will soon come to an end at the Democratic National Convention In Charlotte after Labor Day weekend.
Contrary to their nightmares’ version of Arpaio’s jail, all four got out and reunited with their families. Miguel Guerra, 37, was transferred to immigration enforcement before being released. When he did get out he said, “They told me I would be in for a very long time. They told me I’d never see my family again. Well, here I am. And its only because of you and because I know my rights and am part of an organization.” After getting out, Isela noticed her action’s impact. “You know, I always used to turn down my eyes before but now, when I see a police officer, I’m not afraid.”
The four are an example of why a set of people have embarked on what they’re calling the No Papers No Fear Ride for Justice. When your campaign target is fear, your result is courage.
The riders set off in an implicity act of civil disobedience, traveling as undocumented people through the hot-spots of hate laws in a bus painted with monarch butterflies and the words, “no papers no fear” in bold letters across its side. Having been inspired by the example of the undocumented youth movement, they hoped to set a similar example for undocumented people of all ages. In each stopped they shared stories, trained, and rallied to call on migrant communities to reach a new level of organizing based on overcoming fear.
Through that process, the community is not the only transformation taking place. The riders too, as they confront the tests of the road, overcome their own fears. As Maricruz Ramirez from Puente in Arizona reflected half way through the journey, “I got a call from my son yesterday. He told me he was proud of me. I also feel proud of myself, because as I have traveled on this bus I have learned so much and changed. I have been able to give more than I thought I could give to my community. I feel stronger every day.”
With one week left before their arrival in Charlotte, local radio stations are beginning to chatter in anticipation. Radio hosts ask listeners, “would you get on the bus?” Many say, “No, but I admire those who are.” And that’s what the riders are hoping to change.
In a movement that is in constant debate over tactics, legislation, and targets, the No Papers No Fear bus riders aren’t advocating any one bill or addressing any one decision-maker. They are addressing everyone, starting with themselves. Each rider had to reckon with their own fears before placing their duffel bag on the bus and taking off to uncertainty.
Through their personal transformation, they hope to transform their community and their movement.
In doing so, they open a new world of possibility. For example, when the US Civil Rights Commission hosted a briefing in Alabama on the impact of state-based immigration laws and invited Kris Kobach, author of SB1070, but not one undocumented person to speak, the commissioners did not plan for the possibility that a 65 year old undocumented domestic worker may arrive in the audience and interrupt in a denunciation of their corruption. In hearing about such an event, few in the migrant community would’ve dreamed of it being an option either. But by overcoming the fear that makes one accept their exclusion, the No Papers No Fear Riders created a new normal where undocumented voices are to be expected instead of excluded.
By making fear the target, they make everyone the focus. As they overcome it, it begs the question what will the rest of the world do to match the risk they take. For a new field of courageous leaders it doesn’t much matter how we answer because they’ve already become unstoppable.