Undocumented, Unafraid? Local Activists Get Boost Against Anti-Immigrant Policies

Lines of people carrying signs and chanting, "No papers, no fear!" blocked off the intersection of Gay Street and Hill Avenue last Tuesday. Some shouted from the street corners, rallying their fellows on the street. And in the middle of the road, sitting on a painted canvas, was Alejandro Guizar, 19. He chanted along with everyone else, even as police handcuffed him and three others before taking them to the Knox County jail.

Guizar, whom we spoke to about the Obama Administration's deferred action policy on the deportation of young immigrants in an Aug. 23 Citybeat, spent several hours in jail before being cited for blocking traffic and released. Last year he was arrested for public intoxication while walking home from a high-school graduation party. Guizar is now in the process of being deported back to Mexico because of that arrest, though those charges have been dropped.

While being held at the jail last week, Guizar said he spoke to an immigration officer, though it was mostly to make sure that Guizar was who he said he was, since he has no form of ID.

"I expected the worst," he said the next day after being released. "I expected to wind up in an immigrations detention center."

The protest and a rally that followed in the evening were staged at the same time the No Papers, No Fear bus carrying undocumented immigrants from around the country rolled into town. The bus, which started its trip in Arizona with a similar protest, has been traveling throughout the South since July, on its way to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. The group has been protesting policies like 287(g) and Secure Communities, which involve the Immigration and Customs Enforcement delegating responsibility to local law enforcement. One of the main components is fingerprinting anyone they arrest and sending those prints to ICE. If the person is discovered to be undocumented, they face deportation.

"The South has been the place where most of the [anti-immigrant policies] have taken place," said Tonia Unzueta, an undocumented bus rider who lives and works with other undocumented immigrants in Chicago. "There's still a lot of tension around who has access to public goods [and services]."

Many of the cases against 287(g) that have received national attention have been reported from Southern and Southwestern states including Georgia and Arizona, but there is also a lawsuit against the policy in Nevada. The policy was adopted in Nashville in 2007, and half the people arrested between May 1 and July 31 of that year were Hispanic, The Tennessean reported. During 2007, 3,000 people from Nashville were deported—the highest number of deportations east of Arizona—including 50 known gang members. The Davidson County Sheriff's Department faced national criticism in 2009 when an undocumented pregnant woman was arrested and gave birth while detained. She told reporters one of her legs was shackled while she was giving birth. Her case caused the sheriff's department to revise its policy, saying it would only shackle women giving birth if they posed a safety risk, and would absolutely not shackle their legs. Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall announced in August that he wouldn't apply to renew the county's participation in 287(g), The Tennessean reported.

Knox County Sheriff Jimmy "JJ" Jones has applied for a grant to implement 287(g), and has repeatedly refused to meet with community members until he receives a memorandum of understanding from the government outlining how the policy would be implemented. Riders on the No Papers, No Fear bus (or "Undocubus") and activists in Knoxville and elsewhere say that those policies tear families apart and they encourage racism by handing over authority to local police, who can intentionally seek out people who look Hispanic to question for offenses they might usually ignore or for which they might simply give warnings.

"We don't want it to have the same effect here as in other cities," said Natalie Cruz, an Undocubus rider from Arizona. Cruz says she's had two families members deported as a result of policies like 287(g).

"It affects families every day," she said.

Guizar's role in Tuesday's protest was lauded by the Undocubus riders and the local activists who participated with him.

"He was trying to take risks to improve our society," says Fran Ansley, a retired University of Tennessee law professor. Ansley was also arrested in the protest. She says she was cited for blocking traffic and released from jail after she provided her name and address.

During the rally held in the evening after the protest, the group marched from Krutch Park to Volunteer Landing chanting "Free Alex," "We're not criminals, we're international workers," and, of course, "No papers, no fear!"

Wednesday morning, Guizar had rejoined the group in front of the sheriff's office.

"Yesterday … I faced my fears," he said. "We will not stop until [programs like 287(g)] are eradicated from our community."

Ansley says the help of the Undocubus riders was indispensable.

"Their energy and their courage … have left us a better place," she says. "They have brought Knoxville a true gift of love."

She also says their help and spirit will continue to encourage activists in Knox County as they keep calling for a meeting with the sheriff about 287(g).

"This is a strange response," Ansley says about the sheriff's refusal to communicate with anyone about the policy he applied for. "He obviously has plenty to tell the community."

As for Guizar, he is still in the process of being deported. The citation from the protest might have an impact on his case, but he remains determined to remain in what he considers his home.

"We're going to work to stop the [arrests]," he says. "We're going to keep organizing."