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Huge rally for immigrant rights
"I know we can make a change"

By Yusef Khalil and Jessica Carmona-Baéz | October 10, 2003 | Page 12

MORE THAN 100,000 people turned out to Flushing Meadows in Queens, New York, to welcome the Freedom Riders in the largest rally for immigrant rights in U.S. history. The huge demonstration was the culmination of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

For the preceding two weeks, 18 buses filled with 900 immigrants and their supporters fanned out across the U.S. to carry the message of legalization and workers' rights. Inspired by the Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the caravans made more than 100 stops from the West Coast to the East for rallies and other actions.

The aim of the Freedom Ride--which was initiated by organized labor and joined by civil rights, community and other organizations--was to shed light on the struggles of immigrant workers and the injustices of U.S. immigration policies. With signs reading "Second Class No More" and "Justice, Amnesty, Liberty," the new Freedom Riders demanded legal status for all immigrants, a clear path for citizenship, the right of immigrants to reunite with their families and new workplace protections for all workers.

Despite a cold wind and rain showers, the New York rally was alive with chants and music. Colorful T-shirts, balloons, banners, signs, flags and posters dotted the crowd, representing many unions, community organizations, religious associations, and immigrant and civil rights groups.

But most striking was the diversity of the demonstration, which fueled a festive atmosphere of hope for a better future. "This is an amazing experience that I will treasure for life," said a Freedom Rider from Houston. "Now that we are united, I know we can make a change."

One bus from Seattle had Freedom Riders from 22 different nations, speaking 14 different languages. "We come from all over the world, old and young, but all of us share the same story," one of the riders, Maria, an immigrant from Jamaica, told Socialist Worker.

Maria was brought to the U.S. by a family to work as their nanny. She slept on a couch in an unheated basement, and her employer withheld most of her salary as payment for the plane fare. "Without the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride," she said, "I wouldn't have known I had any rights."

Olia Furmully, from SEIU Local 616 in San Francisco, has been struggling for years to bring her children to the U.S. from Afghanistan. She managed to get reunited with only two of them, but immigration problems persist. "I know that thousands had problems with the INS, so we decided to come together," she said.

Immigration laws also discriminate against same-sex couples. Marta Donayre, from Brazil, was working in the U.S. under the highly restrictive H1B Visa program. When she lost her job, she could not apply to remain in the U.S. with her domestic partner, because immigration laws only cover married couples--and marriage is only interpreted to be heterosexual.

The three main forces behind the Freedom Rides are organized labor, immigrant rights organizations and the religious community. But activists have also made connections with other struggles. "The antiwar movement and the student movement need to reach out to immigrants," Marv Davidov, a Freedom Rider from both 1961 and 2003 told Socialist Worker.

Organized labor's role in the Freedom Rides is especially important. The AFL-CIO long held right-wing position on immigration issues. But unions such as HERE, SEIU and UNITE, with large numbers of immigrants among their members, have led the labor movement in recognizing the importance of standing up against anti-immigrant policies. "The struggle of immigrant workers is our struggle," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told the crowd. "We believe, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

After the setbacks of the Bush administration's "war on terrorism," with its witch-hunt against Arab immigrants, the Freedom Ride has put the issue of immigrant rights back in the spotlight. Some politicians--especially the numerous Democratic Party officials prominently featured at most Freedom Ride rallies--have made new promises of support. Now we have to hold them to their word.

This fight won't be won overnight. But the spirit of today's Freedom Ride shows the potential for rebuilding the struggles that can finally win justice--and not only for immigrants, but also for the many other closely related fightbacks. Holding up her 5-month-old baby--the youngest of all the Freedom Riders--Maria told Socialist Worker, "We need to build a movement to change America for him and for generations to come."

Stops in North Carolina and Washington, D.C.
By Kat Bodrie, Jacob Kidd, Nick Chin and J. Brand

CONTINUING THEIR trek across the continental U.S., the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride stopped at the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, N.C., on September 30. The museum is the site of the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in, the first sit-in of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. As state Rep. Earl Jones said, "This is holy ground."

The 87 Freedom Riders and about 100 fellow protesters--including Teamsters, UNITE members and students from various local colleges--marched to North Carolina A&T State University. "Enough is enough," said speaker Juventino Camerena from Painters and Allied Trades Local 150. "We're not asking for much. We're asking for the American Dream."

That spirit was on display the next night in Washington, D.C., as Freedom Riders and their supporters packed into the Bible Way Temple for an indoor rally. For 30 minutes, the crowd clapped and cheered, chanting "Sí, se puede," as riders marched into the church.

Unfortunately, organizers made a decision to appeal to patriotism by passing out American flags--the symbol of a system that has betrayed so many immigrant workers. But Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, president of the American Muslim Council, showed the real spirit of struggle-from-below when he spoke out against the "three D's: discrimination, detention, deportation."

"If the people at the top of the boat won't let us up for the rights and joys of this country," he said, "we will drill a hole in the bottom of the ship."

Local unions and activist groups came out to support the Riders and to appeal for solidarity with their own struggles. Some 1,500 people marched with the Riders from Farragut Square, filling the air with chants. As Ricardo Swangin of UNITE put it, "We're here together. We've all been through the same thing."

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