By Carmen Cusido and Fred Clasen-Kelly
A busload of undocumented immigrants has departed for Charlotte, on its way to protest during the Democratic National Convention.
The occupants will risk deportation to demonstrate in Mecklenburg County, where sheriff’s deputies check the immigration status of people who are arrested. The group will join hundreds of other illegal immigrants who could march during the convention, protest organizers said.
Some 30 men and women left Sunday from Phoenix on a multistate tour that will cut through states such as Alabama and Georgia that have passed some of the nation’s toughest immigration laws. The bus will arrive in Charlotte just before the Democratic National Convention starts in September.
Mecklenburg County uses two federal programs to refer immigrants in the country illegally to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Pro-immigration activists generally oppose the programs.
The bus riders say they plan to use “civil disobedience” to draw attention to law-enforcement tactics they view as unfairly targeting them.
“We are tired of the injustice,” said Fernando Lopez, 21, who came to the United States from Mexico and now lives in Phoenix. “We are tired of the indignity.”
Gerardo Torres, 41, said he arrived in the U.S. 18 years ago and stayed to work as a handyman.
“I want people to know the real me,” said Torres, who also lives in Phoenix. “We’re living in a cage of gold. It’s gold but we’re not free.”
Torres said his grandmother died in Mexico last week but he could not attend the funeral because he feared leaving the U.S.
But the bus tour prompted harsh criticism from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for stricter enforcement.
“This is militant in-your-face defiance of the rule of law,” said Bob Dane, spokesman for the group. “This is the chaos of nonenforcement of immigration from the top down.”
Dane noted that the federal ICE agency said last year it would focus on deporting immigrants convicted of serious crimes. Its leaders authorized immigration agents to postpone or cancel deportation on a case-by-case basis. They’re allowed to consider how long the person had been living in the U.S., and whether they are attending high school or college.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama announced that federal authorities would halt deportations for some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children.
During the Democrats’ convention, police officers will detain undocumented immigrants only if they are arrested and accused of committing another crime, said Julia Rush, a spokeswoman for the Mecklenburg sheriff’s office.
“It will be business as usual,” Rush said.
Under one federal program, called 287(g), sheriff’s deputies ask people brought to the Mecklenburg County Jail where they were born and where they are a legal citizen.
If the suspect provides an answer that is outside the United States, deputies fingerprint and photograph the person and check their immigration status by putting the information into a computerized registry maintained by ICE.
Federal authorities decide whether the person is deported, Rush said.
She said the sheriff’s office implemented the program “so we would know who is in our jail” within 10 minutes. Previously, suspects could provide phony names and ages and an immigration check would take two to three days. In some cases, Rush said, the suspect had been released from jail before authorities learned their immigration status.
Julio Salgado, 28, is an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States from Mexico and now lives in Berkeley, Calif. He said he plans to join the bus tour that left Phoenix on Sunday.
The tour will help immigrants to “take control of the narratives,” Salgado said. “A lot of the times the right-wing … types keep on creating this sort of picture of undocumented immigrants as this criminal who is going to turn this country to a third-world country.
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