Bob Miller for NBC News
Maria Cruz Ramirez, one of several undocumented immigrants traveling across the country on the "undocubus," protests during a briefing on the civil rights effects of state immigrations law held by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Birmingham, Ala., on August 17, 2012.
Birmingham, Ala. -- Maria Cruz Ramirez thrust up a small banner reading “undocumented,” interrupting a hearing on strict state immigration laws to share the impact that the legislation has had on her life.
“I am here to lift up the voice of my community, of my children, all those families who have been separated. I am here and I want to present this so you can see it,” Ramirez, 46, cried out in Spanish as she held up the sign at the meeting in Birmingham. “I am a mother, a responsible mother … I am not a criminal and I am here to defend my rights.”
A mother of three and former owner of a hair salon in Mexico, Ramirez, who lives in Arizona, never thought she would end up here, as an immigration activist, possibly jeopardizing her life in the U.S. But after 11 years in this country, she decided to throw herself into the public spotlight as Arizona’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants threatened her family.
“I’m fighting for them and for everyone else, for my community, for the mothers who don’t want to or can’t or don’t know how to support their children,” she said. “I want to represent all of those mothers and all of those young people.”
As a minibus shuttled her and other undocumented immigrants on a nighttime ride last week through the South, a touring protest called the “undocubus,” Ramirez recalled her family’s journey to the U.S.
They came here like many others, seeking better opportunities. She wanted her children to go to good schools and learn two languages. Her husband, Eugenio Sanchez, said it would be a step up from their life back home. They entered the country on tourist visas, which they overstayed, Ramirez said.
But as her two oldest children, Hugo, now 24, and Alina, 19, graduated from high school in Phoenix and tried to move on to college and jobs, their legal status was put in sharp relief. Neither can get steady work and they have had to curtail their studies since a 2006 Arizona law made them ineligible for in-state tuition, meaning higher education is prohibitively expensive.
Ramirez can’t get a stable job, either, since she is undocumented, leaving it up to her husband, who fixes cars, to be the sole provider. But due to the passage of another state law, the controversial SB1070 -- under which authorities must determine immigration status during a lawful stop -- the family has heightened fears, with Eugenio Sanchez opting to hide out one night when authorities suddenly showed up in the area where he works.
“That's the first thing that happened to me with the new laws,” Ramirez said of the scare for her husband, though he returned home the next day without incident. “Day by day, I’ve been scared for my children because they drive. So, I say, ‘What is going to happen if tomorrow one of them gets stopped and I’m not going to see them? Or maybe, they’ll detain me while I'm on the street, what’s going to happen to them?’ It's gotten me to think, ‘What am I doing here? Should I go? Should I stay?’ It’s something that you can’t prevent, what may happen.”
The family has had hard discussions about the situation they find themselves in. Tears were shed over the frustration.
Courtesy of Alina Sanchez
The Sanchez family at Alina's graduation from high school in May 2011. From left to right: Rocio, father Eugenio, Alina, mother Maria Cruz Ramirez, Hugo.
“We would find ... a wall between us, between everything we wanted and between what we could have ... in Mexico,” Alina said, noting that her mom asked many times if they wanted to return to their home country.
Ramirez said her son, Hugo, at one point questioned why they even came.
“He told me, ‘See, why did you bring us here? It’s your fault for bringing us here because we came here without a permit,’” she said, at times wiping away tears. “And I told him, ‘The truth is, it’s true. As a mother, it’s my fault because I was thinking for you and deciding for you, and I think instead of doing good, I did bad for you.’ Because, maybe over there, we would be poor but they would have more.”
Hugo, who is proud of his mom's activism, didn’t recall this specific conversation, but Alina said: "Maybe we did blame her and it's understandable but it's ... not her fault.
"I see where she is coming from and I know she was doing something better for us because she wants us to be better people,” she added.
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Ramirez began volunteering 18 months ago with a group of youth like her own children, who could be eligible for the Dream Act -- immigration reform legislation that has stalled in Congress. But the trigger to stepping up her activism, and putting herself in the spotlight, happened after she saw Hugo and her 17-year-old daughter, Rocio, get arrested while protesting earlier this year on a Phoenix street against Arizona’s immigration restrictions.
“They stood up for themselves and fought for their own rights and dignity,” she said.
When she heard about the bus full of undocumented immigrants heading across the U.S. as a form of visible protest, she said, “My heart jumped and I said, ‘This is my chance.’”
“From the first moment, I thought that it was going to be an impossible dream, even being on the bus, I started asking myself, ‘What I am going to do? What am I doing?’ But now that I feel more part of the group and I participated in different things, I've liked it,” she said.
So far, the bus has wound through Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama on its way to North Carolina for the Democratic National Convention, which begins Sept. 4.
“I armed myself with bravery,” Ramirez said. “I’m not scared anymore because I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m defending my rights as a person, as a human being, and I think if they take away my liberty for a couple of days, I give them up happily.”
Ramirez got legal advice before she left on the trip. She was told that if arrested, she would be low priority for deportation since she hadn’t, for example, committed a crime. But she also learned she didn’t have anything that would help her case, either, such as a relative who is a U.S. citizen, and that ultimately a decision on deportation would be a matter of prosecutorial discretion.
Bob Miller / for NBC News
Maria Huerta, Maria Cruz Ramirez and Gerardo Torres, who are all undocumented, enter a civil rights hearing on the impact of state immigration laws held in Birmingham, Ala., on Aug. 17, 2012.
Her children, however, may stand to benefit from a new federal initiative known as the “deferred action” program, under which certain young immigrants in the country without documents can get a two-year work permit and a reprieve from deportation. But it won’t help the parents of those who qualify, which is hard, Alina said.
“It’s sad to think about ... them not having papers,” she said, also noting how proud she was of her mom. “She’s doing it for us so I am so grateful … . Even though we miss her a lot, we know she is doing something good."
On the road, Ramirez has heard from opposing voices. One of those at the Birmingham hearing, Carol Swain, a professor of politics and law at Vanderbilt University, said the group had not chosen the right venues for their protest.
“Take your protest to Congress and sit outside their doors,” Swain, a self-described conservative, said later by phone. She added that she thought “the average citizen doesn’t understand how someone can be in the country, you know, undocumented or illegal and then they’re making demands and flaunting the fact that they don’t have papers. But when I listen to the people (the undocubus group), I see their sincerity, that they really do believe that they’re entitled ... to be legal and to have all the benefits of American citizens."
"I think we’re sort of speaking past each other," she added, "and I think they’re taking their protest to the wrong party.”
Such a critique is not likely to dissuade Ramirez, who said the bus protest has given her strength and taught her a lot.
“I ask myself every day, ‘What a turn my life made, a total turn,’” she said. “I think it was my time to live. It was my time to give to someone else.”
NBC News' Natalia Jimenez contributed to this this report.
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