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Latinos on protest circuit ‘sit-in’ at sheriff’s office

fr sit inUndocumented workers staged a sit-in at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office last week to protest the sheriff’s alleged targeting of Latino immigrants through deliberately placed traffic stops.

The “No Papers, No Fear: Ride for Justice” bus tour swung through Jackson County last week. The bus was filled with about 20 undocumented workers who had traveled across parts of the U.S. to draw awareness to their plight — particularly, the daily fear many have that they will be deported.

The group stopped in Jackson County because Sheriff Jimmy Ashe has been accused of setting up traffic checkpoints on the outskirts of Latino communities during known commuter hours — seemingly with the goal of finding undocumented Latino workers.

In at least a couple of instances, the sheriff’s office prearranged for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to be on hand to arrest those suspected of being illegal immigrants. A couple of Latinos from Jackson County who had been detained in the traffic stops joined the protest.

“The people from here talk about the different problems they had been facing, particularly the drivers license checkpoints,” said Tania Unzueta, a spokeswoman for the movement. “There is actually a fear in the community.”

The North Carolina Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is currently investigating the checkpoints run by Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

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An investigation by The Smoky Mountain News of traffic checkpoints conducted in Jackson County during the past three years showed that the sheriff’s office clearly anticipated stopping illegal immigrants at a May checkpoint and had worked with Immigration agents and Customs Enforcement on at least two other police checkpoints.

Ashe defended his actions, saying that the checkpoints were setup randomly and not to target a specific group. Ashe added that he is required to arrest anyone who they find is breaking the law during the checkpoint — which usually fell in the category of driving without a license. 

Victor Alvares, who lives in Asheville and has joined the bus tour, has not had any personal experience with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, but that does not stop the fear.

“Being scared of being deported, yes, but thank God up to this point I have never had a problem with immigration,” Alvares said.

Alvares said he has seen families torn apart when one of the parents is deported.

“It hurts me a lot to see when a family is separated, and I’ve seen a lot of children suffer,” Alvares said.

Alvares was driving around Asheville one day when the police pulled him over. They asked him to get out of the car and handcuffed him while they searched his entire vehicle.

“I felt like I was being treated as if I was nobody,” Alvares said. “I did not say anything. I just let them do their quote unquote job.”

The experience left him scared. Not just for one or two days, for him and other undocumented workers, fear is a regular state of being.

“Personally, I am scared when I see police because my experience is that they don’t respect our rights as immigrants,” said Alvares, who works as a cook. “Sometimes, they treat us as animals.”

The tour has moved from Arizona to Colorado to New Mexico to Texas through Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee before making its final stop in North Carolina at the Democratic National Convention where riders planned to rally and meet with various dignitaries will there.

It mostly focused on the South because Southern states have “some of the harshest anti-immigration legislation,” Unzueta said.

Overall, the undocumented workers have been welcomed at each stop, particularly by members of the nondenominational Unitarian Universalist church. The church has provided bus riders with food and shelter along the way.

“We have had pretty positive reaction,” Unzueta said. “We know that there is a strong non-Latino community that is supportive of the job we are doing.”

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