Poli-Migra No More

TPD change in policy brings relief to organizer, undocumented community

Rudy Vicente Bugon stopped driving and riding his bike two years ago. He's an undocumented worker, and with SB 1070 in place, he didn't want to risk dragging more attention to himself.

In the five years the 33-year-old has lived in Tucson, the police have stopped him three times.

"I would think, OK this is it," he says, sitting in the back patio of Southside Presbyterian Church. One month ago, Bugon became a member of the Southside Workers Center, a community of day laborers based at the South Tucson church.

It took him four months to get to the U.S. from Retalhuleu, Guatemala, on the Pacific Coast, close to the border with Chiapas, Mexico. He says he barely survived and the thought of a second try was unbearable.

From Chiapas, Bugon and his best friend boarded La Bestia, the infamous freight train that travels northward. They stopped here and there to eat and sleep at shelters along the way. Then a coyote, human smuggler, guided them through the final stage, crossing the Sonoran Desert into Sasabe, Arizona.

"We were in Sasabe for eight days. We found Border Patrol trucks in every route, so we would have to walk back four, five hours and take a different path," he says. "We only had food and water for three days. I don't know how I made it."

The monstrous desert and three traffic stops—Bugon isn't sure if it's been good luck or his guardian angel that's helped him get through. Here, unlike many others, his encounters with cops never put him face-to-face with the Border Patrol. But Bugon knew if he continued at that pace, it was a matter of time until he was apprehended and deported.

"I would just sit on the curb while they searched my car, or stood while they padded me down, I was scared, but sometimes I thought that if you were clean, then maybe they just let you go," he says.

Still, a clandestine life seemed safer.

Lately, Bugon is comfortable using public transportation to get to his daily graveyard shift polishing floors at a grocery store. He works 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and then heads to the worker center to make some extra bucks doing gardening or handyman work for a few hours.

During a recent worker center gathering, Bugon heard the Tucson Police Department no longer asks people their immigration status, especially workers like himself who don't have felonies on their record. He was relieved.

TPD's decision to scale back its SB 1070 enforcement was an unmeasurable success for local immigration rights activists, members of the City Council and other allies.

"When people unite and strategize to make a difference, we can make it, and we have seen changes thanks to a united effort from the community and from our allies," says Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa, a worker center organizer and immigrant rights activist.

Since the statute went into effect in 2010, the sight and chants of protestors outside TPD, and other areas of the city, became a regular scene.

Advocacy groups expressed their discontent for how the department enforced the state's "show me your papers" law. The images of Alcaraz Ochoa laying underneath Border Patrol trucks, or agents pepper spraying and shooting rubber bullets at activists for blocking the arrests of undocumented workers, are unforgettable.

It became too common to hear about undocumented men and women apprehended by the Border Patrol over a minor traffic violation. A section of SB 1070 requires the police to check the immigration status of people arrested or detained when there is "reasonable suspicion" they are not in the country legally (this part was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court).

Although, since the beginning TPD Chief Roberto Villaseñor expressed displeasure with the law, he'd repeatedly reminded the community that it was his job to enforce it.

"You get the good and you get the bad. That is my job to enforce the law. For people to tell me to ignore it, it was not realistic," he says sitting in his office. "But there is some tension that could be relieved by getting us out of the immigration enforcement aspect. It helps heal the relationship between the department and the community because there is a lot of mistrust, a lot of frustration on why are local police involved with federal immigration enforcement ... civil immigration enforcement. This is a way to begin to heal that grief between the department and the community."

Last month, the department adjusted its SB 1070 policies. In December, Villaseñor announced the police would not get involved with immigration enforcement unless those detained have felonies on their records, are affiliated with a gang, are identified as terrorists, or pose a threat to national security. The changes better matched the Department of Homeland Security's criteria, and President Barack Obama's 2014 immigration action, which reinforced that the government should focus on deporting criminals.

When TPD began to keep track of statistics, they noticed that of the more than 11,000 calls police made to Border Patrol since summer of last year, the agency responded to less than 100, because some of those cases did not fit their enforcement criteria, Villaseñor says.

He hadn't rolled out the general order on immigration adjustments until now, because the department wanted to ensure everything was done as lawfully as possible (in case of a lawsuit, they argue their reasons are very defensible since the law allows anyone to sue if they feel the law isn't being followed).

"It is all these factors together, the input from the City Council, the input from the city attorney, the changes in enforcement criteria from Border Patrol, the president's executive order, all of that came in," he says. "The City Council represents the interest of the community and they were making (their opposition) loud and clear."

He agrees that local law enforcement should not be involved with immigration enforcement. "It was completely inappropriate," he says.

Bugon is considering riding his bike to work again, and says he is happy he can be a little less paranoid while he's out on the streets. It's soothing to know he can make money to help his parents back home, without having as big a target on his back.

For immigration rights activists the work isn't done.

Alcaraz Ochoa says they are creating a hotline where people stopped or apprehended by the police can report whether or not TPD is following the SB 1070 enforcement changes. He also hopes efforts with Councilwomen Regina Romero and Karin Uhlich to provide undocumented people with IDs can gain momentum again.

"Civil disobedience and physical intervention to stop the injustices and make visible what a lot of times is invisible to people. This is a reminder of how we can continue to organize ourselves ... and achieve change," he says.

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