Riding Across America for Immigrant Workers

New York Times, Tuesday, 16th Sept.
Borrowing a page from the civil rights movement, immigrants rights groups announced yesterday that they would stage an updated version of the 1960's Freedom Rides by sending 18 buses across the nation to draw attention to the plight of many immigrants.

In organizing this "Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride," the groups, with labor unions and civil rights organizations, hope to persuade Congress and the public to back legislation to give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.

The buses will begin heading east from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle next week. The riders will stop in dozens of cities for rallies and will meet other riders in Washington for a rally and lobbying effort. As a finale, sponsors are hoping to attract more than 100,000 supporters to an Oct. 4 rally in Flushing Meadows in New York.

"We are tired of seeing the abuses that immigrants face every day," said Maria Elena Durazo, a union official who is chairwoman of the effort. "The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride follows the tradition of the civil rights movement that no group of people be excluded from the basic rights they deserve."

All told, organizers say, 18 buses carrying 800 immigrants will leave from 10 cities and will stop in more than 100 communities in 42 states so the riders can hold rallies and news conferences, meet with political leaders and seek public support.

The immigration riders will stop in Anniston, Ala., where a Freedom Riders bus was forced off the road and firebombed in 1961. The riders will also hold a ceremony in Tucson to commemorate the deaths of illegal immigrants in the desert.

The effort, organizers say, will cost over $1 million; labor unions, foundations, churches and civil rights groups have contributed.

"This is a continuation of some of the fighting we did 40 years ago," the Rev. James Orange, an associate of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, said yesterday at a Washington news conference.

In 1961, scores of blacks and their white supporters boarded buses with the aim of integrating buses, waiting rooms and terminals in the South, which were often kept segregated despite a Supreme Court ruling that it was illegal to keep interstate carriers segregated. At each stop, the riders led rallies at colleges and churches. Their efforts often met with violence.

The immigrants' ride sponsors are not seeking specific legislation but are pushing for several goals, among them letting immigrants who work in the United States legalize their status, and providing full labor protections to and respecting the civil rights of all immigrant workers, even illegal ones.

"This is an unprecedented mobilization to support immigrants in this country," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group for immigrants. "It's based on the premise that the current immigration system is broken. It leaves 8 to 10 million people outside the law."

Mr. Sharry said the immigration system was badly in need of change because illegal immigrants were often exploited, because it was often hard for immigrants to reunite with their families and because hundreds of illegal immigrants have died in the desert from heat and thirst. Organizers of the rides are calling for expanding the number of family reunification visas, which give priority to relatives of legal immigrants.

"We should reward work and grant legal status to hard-working people," Mr. Sharry said. "We should reunite families in a timely fashion."

Another concern, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks, is that some immigrants are imprisoned indefinitely pending rulings on their status, and the legal rights of others have been reduced.

"Strengthening our borders and strengthening national security should not come at the cost of denying hard-working men and women their civil rights," Ms. Durazo said.

The idea for the effort originated with leaders of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, which successfully pushed the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to reverse its traditional anti-immigrant policy and embrace the cause of immigrants. Many unions are seeking to unionize immigrant workers, including illegal immigrants, because they are frequently among the nation's most exploited, lowest-paid workers and because their wages often pull down wages for other workers.

For some reports from the International Labour Movment, or from the CWI, visit our news pages.