Two Capitol Police officers and the Lt. Sergeant-at-Arms whipped their walkie-talkies from their hip belts and scrambled to the front row of the public seating section.
"We will not have disruption between alternating sides," the Lt. Sergeant-at-Arms barked. "Anyone who says anything will be arrested."
The tension had been intensifying for nearly two hours in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building. Here, on Feb. 29, the Republican-led House Select Committee on the State's Role in Immigration Policy had led a caustic, even hostile meeting, in a tone that was unmistakably anti-immigrant.
In the public section, a short wall by chance separated two groups: a dozen or so whites, including Ron Woodard, who heads a Cary-based anti-immigration group, NC Listen; tea party members and other assorted conservatives, who before the meeting griped that they "don't have rights anymore."
On the other side of the wall sat a predominantly Latino crowd of 50 (with a few whites sprinkled in), some wearing badges that read "Jesus Ministry" and underneath it, "I Vote." Others were decked out in orange T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Undocumented and Unafraid."
It was at the end of the meeting—after several legislators had pilloried an invited presenter and equated illegal immigration with violence, drugs and crime—that Uriel Alberto, Estephania Mijangos and Cynthia Martinez, three members of the NC DREAM Team, who were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents, rose from their seats and declared their status.
"My name is Uriel Alberto. I am undocumented and I am unafraid. I refuse to be bullied and intimidated by this committee and choose to empower my community," he said.
Police officers then escorted them from the meeting room, while less than 10 feet away and over the wall, several whites, some on their feet, bellowed:
"Go home! Arrest them, arrest them!"
A woman seated nearby added, "Get the fuck out."
Six days later, on Tuesday afternoon, Alberto, one of three demonstrators arrested at the meeting, sat in a visiting room at the Wake County Jail. Alberto, who is naturally lean and sinewy, had been on a hunger strike since 6 a.m. the previous Friday, when he had two small pancakes and half a sausage at the jail. White gauze was taped to the inside of his arm where nurses earlier that day had taken blood to monitor his condition.
The other two protestors had been released on misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges, but because Alberto, 24, has a record—a string of misdemeanor convictions in Forsyth County—he is on a federal detainer issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
After he goes to court on the disorderly conduct charge—tentatively April 2—ICE will decide whether to deport him back to Mexico.
Mexico is a country that Alberto has not known for nearly 18 years. Born in a village in Oaxaca, he left the country at age 7. Years earlier, his parents, first his father and then his mother, had gone to California in search of a better life, leaving Alberto and his sister in the care of their grandparents.
It was a dangerous journey a mother could not chance alone with two small children. "My mother told us she would be gone for a few days, but I knew it was a lie because she was crying," Alberto says, he too, beginning to sob. "I remember comforting my sister, saying, 'She's going to come back soon.'"
Four years later, their parents sent for them. The Alberto children traveled by bus to Mexico City, where an aunt lived, and with her by plane to Tijuana, where a friend of their father drove them to Los Angeles. The family reunited. "For a child who didn't expect to see his parents again, it was a dream come true," Alberto says.
After a year, Alberto's parents lost their respective factory jobs. His father had friends in Winston-Salem who said life was easier there, so the family drove for three days and three nights in a red Nissan truck—Uriel rode in the cab—before arriving at their new home.
Alberto's parents found work. He quickly learned English, and, he says, the family "chased the American Dream."
A track star in high school, he dreamed of running for a Division I college. "I thought it was my way out," he says. "Long distance running is a painful sport. You have to recover from failure. You have to be strong. That's why track appealed to me. You have to defeat your mind that is sending signals to your body to quit."
But scholarship money would cover only so much. He couldn't get financial aid because he didn't have a Social Security number and his family couldn't afford the out-of-state tuition—undocumented immigrants are required to pay the higher tuition rate—for him to attend an in-state college. In 2005, he graduated from high school without prospects. His parents split up. "My life unraveled," he says. "I became extremely depressed."
At 18, his scrapes with the law began, although they were all misdemeanor convictions: speeding, DWI, driving with a revoked license, throwing fruit at a moving vehicle. Finally, he began getting back on course: He found a job—the factory didn't check his fake Social Security number—and two years ago, had a son, Julian, who is a U.S. citizen. Julian lives with his mother, who is Cuban, in Florida.
"He is such a joy," Alberto says. But he fears that if he is deported, he will not see his Julian again. The two will be separated, much like Alberto was from his father
Even traveling to see Julian on his second birthday was risky. "I tried to rent a car, but there were none left," Alberto says. "I was so desperate to see him that I took a plane. And there were so many moments when you're trying to get through the terminal. I prayed, 'God, let me get on that plane.' And I did."
Alberto says he will continue with his hunger strike. Jail policy states that inmates cannot be force-fed, but personnel can take "whatever medical means necessary."
If he could speak with legislators on the immigration committee, Alberto says he would tell them, "This is not an immigration issue, but a human issue. The fear, that we have to hide is unacceptable. We're trying to empower youth and our community by coming out of the shadows."
"If I'm deported at least I'll know I raised awareness. I'm holding on for my life. The U.S. is my life."