Am I My Brothers’ Keeper? Common Sense in Charlotte

The No Papers No Fear Ride for Justice aimed to inspire when it took off from Phoenix on the 2nd anniversary of SB1070’s implementation. However, Commissioner James’ anti-immigrant proposal is not what riders had in mind.  In Mecklenburg County where Charlotte, NC is located and where the Democratic National Convention will be held early next month, the ride inspired the commissioner to introduce a mimic of Alabama-style law turning schools into immigration checkpoints.

By coming out of the shadows as publicly undocumented and telling their stories without fear or apology, riders hope to set an example for the migrant community and to make others understand the crisis taking place because of deportations and unjust immigration enforcement.  As one rider explained, “We confront our fears so that our adversaries confront our humanity.”

They fill a leadership vacuum on immigration and insert themselves into the exact debate that took place at the County Commission last night; will we be a people of inclusion or exclusion?

Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James firmly placed himself on the wrong side of history by introducing a bill to imitate Alabama’s enjoined law that requires investigation of students’ immigration status. The bill had little chance of passing due to the fact that it is both unconstitutional. When reading the Board of Education chair’s response to commissioner James, it could be summarized as asking the bill sponsor, ‘what part of illegal don’t you understand?’ Still, the commissioner was determined to bring the bill forward for debate.

While his co-sponsors Bentley and Pendergraph rooted their support in the benign argument that they simply were seeking information not seeking to intimidate, Pendergraph’s history in bringing the 287g program that has decimated the civil rights of the migrant community to Charlotte and commissioner James’ own remarks of hoping to send a bill to children’s country of origin for the cost of their education revealed the undertone of the proposal. The dozens of audience members from the Latin American Coalition, Action NC, and la Familia Unida who showed up carrying bananas to protest the absurdity of the proposal watched as the discrimination and mal-intent inherent in James’ effort was revealed and refuted by the rest of the commission.

In the most passionate response of the night, Commissioner Leake explained, “My history will not allow me to see this happen… I think of Brown versus Board of Education and I think how the debate must have sounded much like this. They talked about quality education but they were addressing the racial question. You have put the rat on the table and now you must address it. The question I return to is ‘Am I my brothers’ keeper?’ I am and I will vote no.”

While Commissioner Dunlop highlighted the political election year motivations of a proposal designed to be ‘red meat thrown to rile up the base,’ Commissioner Roberts voted against the bill based on the unintended consequences she foresaw.  Recounting her time in schools she said, “I have talked to six year olds who are afraid to go to school. They have asked me ‘am I not a legal human being? Do I not deserve to exist?'” She continued, “I’ve been with them. I’ve heard children say this.”

And with that, the bill was voted down and the tide in Charlotte turned toward inclusion. As Natally Cruz, a No Papers No Fear rider, has explained, “When we lose our fear, they lose their power.” There have always been ugly reactions to marginalized people refusing to be pushed to the margins any longer.  And while Commissioner James’ cosponsors may like to say they were simply on a fact-finding mission, his mention that he was motivated by news that ‘the undocubus is coming and saying they’re not afraid and not going anywhere’ revealed that it was a legislative response to a people who have determined to see themselves respected.

The No Papers No Fear riders are excited to arrive in Charlotte to meet with the local community that stood up at the commission last night, who stand up to the risk of deportation every day in Mecklenburg County, and let Commissioner James and anyone else know that they are no longer afraid.

Instead of responding to the no papers no fear ride with such a wrong-headed approach, the bill’s sponsors would do better to listen to Commissioner Leake’s closing remarks, “Don’t ever forget the civil rights movement. Because if you do, it’ll hit you again.”

[Reposted with permission from the No Papers No Fear blog.]

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