Yesterday, I wrote about the way that religious communities are supporting UndocuBus as it make its way towards Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention. But the riders are also connecting with undocumented workers and students who personally know the perils of living in the South without papers. Here’s a dispatch from Asheville, North Carolina, where UndocuBus has staged rallies and actions against anti-immigrant enforcement.
If you look closely at Carlos Mendoza’s wrists, you can’t help but notice the scars that cover them, straight up through his arms. The 46-year-old father of three fell from a second-story roof in 2006, and when he arrived in the emergency room, he was told both his hands might have to be amputated.
After an initial emergency surgery saved his hands, the hospital learned he was uninsured. When administrators asked to call his boss to see about covering the costs of additional surgeries, the company Mendoza worked for told the hospital they had never heard of him. After several phone calls, the boss told administrators that Mendoza was a contractor, and that although they would donate $500 for the medical care, his company wasn’t legally bound to help him. In total, Mendoza’s bills added up to about $40,000—and his hands’ limited mobility meant that it was unlikely that he would ever return to work.
Mendoza, of course, was not a contractor, but a construction worker earning just $13 an hour to build and rebuild homes in Jackson County, North Carolina. But, because he’s undocumented, Mendoza feared he had little recourse—until he heard about the Workers’ Center in the town of Marion. Mendoza soon learned about his rights as a worker, and for the next three and a half years, he fought his former employer to pay the medical costs associated with his fall on the job. Because he learned from the bottom up until he won his case, he became an asset to the Worker’s Center, and now works there, making sure that all workers in the local community know what their rights are—regardless of their immigration status.
Mendoza was one of about ninety people who attended a protest last night with UndocuBus riders at a local restaurant called Shogun Buffet. Last November, an ICE raid resulted in the deportation of twelve workers there, and many in the local community say the restaurant worked with authorities to coordinate the raid. As patrons left the restaurant, and as others stopped by to see the crowd, they learned about the way these deportations separate families. Mendoza, along with dozens of other undocumented workers have been spending time with UndocuBus riders, making community in their shared experience. One local told me that even when authorities don’t listen to her, meeting UndocuBus riders helped her understand that she wasn’t alone.
The riders returned to Asheville’s Unitarian Universalist Church, where they spent the night before heading out of Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe’s office this morning. Sheriff Ashe has been holding checkpoints, and locals say they are targeted because of the color of their skin. After a small group of UndocuBus riders entered the Sheriff’s office lobby, they were told he would not meet with them—so some thirty people lined up at the administrator’s desk, stated their name and city, their undocumented status, and also asked to meet with the Sheriff. They also began calling the sheriff, and took to Twitter to urge followers to do the same. The riders and local community members eventually packed the lobby, held a press conference, and carried out a series of chants before they left. In a caravan, the group headed over to Colima Restaurant in Sylva, which treated them to a generous lunch.
Sheriff Ashe never came out to meet with the riders and locals, and he never returned phone calls—including my press call. But it would be impossible to conclude that the action was a waste of time: people who sometimes stay at home for fear of being pulled over (and are sometimes deported as a result) met others like them, participated in a public action that revealed their status, and began appropriating the almost contagious idea of rejecting fear.
Tomorrow, one UndocuBus delegation heads to Raleigh to hold a workshop with the local community. The rest of the riders are headed to Charlotte for the DNC. Although protests at national conventions are nothing new, this will mark the first time ever that a large group of undocumented people will assert their own claims.