A freedom ride for immigrant rights
For two weeks in September and October 2003, activists from across the country boarded buses to take part in a Freedom Ride for immigrant workers' rights. Organized in the tradition of the Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement some 40 years before, activists came together to take their demands for legalization and rights at work to Washington, D.C.
And like the civil rights activists, immigrant rights activists also faced opposition, including a stop by the Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas. This report fromwas first published in October 3, 2003, issue of Socialist Worker.
NEARLY 20 buses filled with 900 activists have fanned out across the U.S. in a Freedom Ride for immigrant workers' rights. Initiated by organized labor and joined by civil rights and other organizations, the campaign is spreading the message of legalization for the more than 8 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and better protections of workplace rights for all workers.
The buses will converge on Washington, D.C., this week--and then travel in a convoy to New York City for a huge rally in Flushing Meadows, Queens, that organizers hope will draw as many as 100,000 people.
"This is allowing immigrants to tell their stories and put it into the context of national movement calling for drastic reform of the immigration system," David Koff, communications director for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, told Socialist Worker. "There's no precedent of that, in the U.S. certainly. The debate has been dominated by voices that have targeted immigrants as the problem, rather than the system that has failed for years to function."
Rallies to send off the buses from their starting cities--San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Houston, Chicago, Miami and Boston--have drawn thousands of people. Last weekend, a crowd of 2,500 gathered in Chicago's Federal Plaza, waving brightly colored banners and signs to represent their unions and organizations, and filling the air with chants of "Sí se puede."
In Boston, more than 400 packed Faneuil Hall for a send-off rally that brought together numerous unions, activists and community groups. And at the more than 100 stops that the buses will make on the trip east, riders have been met by enthusiastic crowds of supporters--400 in Tucson, Ariz.; 250 in Reno, Nev.; 400 in Austin, Texas; 100 in Orlando, Fla.
But there has also been a darker reception. The right-wing Federation for American Immigration Reform (known by its misleading initials FAIR) issued an action alert for its supporters to contact the Department of Homeland Security and "demand that enforcement authorities identify and arrest any illegal aliens" on the Freedom Rides. In some cities, handfuls of white supremacists have turned out to spew their hate.
And in west Texas, the bus that originated in LA was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint outside El Paso. The riders were ordered off the bus, but they refused to provide documentation--and interfered with attempts to question passengers by singing civil rights songs. After four hours, the Feds gave up, and the buses were allowed to proceed.
Leone Bicchieri, a spokesperson on the LA buses, said that the Border Patrol's actions were a clear demonstration of why the demands of the Freedom Riders should be met. "They were asked for their identification, but the passengers felt it was racial profiling and exercised their right to remain silent," Bicchieri told a San Antonio television station. If a "group of Boy Scouts" had been traveling down the same route, Bicchieri said, "they wouldn't have been stopped and asked for documentation."
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THE BORDER Patrol's actions in El Paso show why immigrants remain second-class citizens in a country that claims to be a "beacon of democracy" around the world. Right-wing groups like FAIR promote a series of myths about immigrants--that they "steal" the jobs of native-born workers, that they come to the U.S. to live off government handouts and so on. These claims are a pack of lies.
Even studies by conservative researchers usually conclude that immigrants don't "steal" jobs, but end up in positions that native-born workers don't want--and that "increased employment of immigrants expands the economy and so increases the jobs available for all workers," as one expert on the subject put it. Likewise, by conservative estimates, the typical immigrant and his or her descendants pay an estimated $80,000 more in taxes than they will receive in local, state and federal benefits over their lifetimes.
The claims of the anti-immigrant bigots have several purposes. First, they provide the powers that be with a convenient scapegoat for blaming all manner of social problems, from unemployment to crime.
And they give employers a weapon to keep workers divided. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court made this explicit--when it ruled in a 5-4 decision that undocumented immigrants aren't entitled to any legal protections when they are wrongfully fired from their jobs.
At the Chicago kick-off rally for the Freedom Ride, John Foster, of the national grassroots organization ACORN, explained why all working people need to fight for immigrant rights.
"For those of us who have to work for a living, we cannot allow the big shots to exploit any of us," he told the crowd before he and the other riders got on the buses. "If they can pay my brother or sister minimum wage or less because they don't have their papers, then neither one of us can get ahead. If they can threaten to deport them if they join the union, then I can't win a union at the workplace. But if we can get our immigrant sisters and brothers legalized, we can all fight together for decent wages and health insurance and quality education and living wage jobs."
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THIS IS why it is so important that organized labor is a central participant in the Freedom Ride. The idea for the campaign came from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union, which has a high number of immigrants among its membership.
Some of the most important struggles to build the union movement in the U.S. were fought for by immigrant workers. But since the Second World War, the AFL-CIO piled up a long record of anti-immigrant positions, supporting tough border controls in the name of defending "American jobs."
This legacy has only recently shifted. Unions like HERE, SEIU and UNITE have won many of the labor movement's most important victories in recent years with organizing in industries where immigrants are a high proportion of the workforce.
In 2000, the AFL-CIO officially reversed its position to call for a blanket amnesty for undocumented immigrants and an end to sanctions against employers who hire them. Calls for amnesty had gained real momentum several years ago, with immigrant rights demonstrations drawing tens of thousands in the early months of George W. Bush's presidency.
But this drive was stopped in its tracks by the September 11, 2001 attacks--and the Bush administration's "war on terrorism." One essential front in this war has been against immigrants at home--especially those of Arab descent. The Freedom Ride and the rallies around the country are an attempt to put immigrant rights back on the agenda.
Even Republicans such as Arizona Sens. John McCain and John Cornyn are responding to reality--and the hope of winning more Latino votes--with proposals that loosen immigration restrictions in various ways. But supporters of immigrant rights should look for the strings attached.
Republican proposals mostly amount to the expansion of "guest worker" programs, under which immigrants can work in the U.S. at low-wage jobs like agriculture with few rights for a certain period--and then be kicked out without any recourse. There's no reason to trust that Republicans--the servants of Corporate America, which both relies on immigrant labor to fill up its workforce, and exploits restrictions on immigration to keep that workforce divided--have the interests of working people at heart.
Democrats, too, have a rotten record on immigrant rights. After all, it was Bill Clinton who pandered to an anti-immigrant hysteria in the mid-1990s to impose Operation Gatekeeper along the U.S.-Mexico border and other policies that worsened the injustices that immigrants face today.
We need less talk from Democrats about immigrant rights--and more action. Thus, at the Chicago kick-off rally for the Freedom Ride, Secretary of State Jesse White--who oversees Illinois' drivers' license system--was allowed to take the stage to wish the Freedom Riders well in lobbying Washington. But as even fellow Democrat Rep. Luis Gutierrez pointed out to the crowd, White has done nothing to promote one of the most common demands among the riders--ending citizenship restrictions for immigrants to get drivers' licenses in Illinois.
Democrats like Jesse White will be happy to show up at Freedom Ride rallies--and the party's national leadership will use the events to rev up the Latino vote in particular for 2004. But how hard will Democrats fight for the demands of the riders?
The spirit of the Freedom Rides--and the grassroots connections between unions, immigrant rights organizations and other forces that the campaign has promoted--shows the real hope for changing Washington's unjust policies: From the bottom up. The old slogan of the labor movement has never been truer: An injury to one is an injury to all. The struggle to win legalization for all immigrants and legal protections at work is a struggle for all of us.
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Why we got on the bus
THEY ARE men and women. They are Latinos, Asians, whites and Blacks. They are the 900 Freedom Riders traveling the length of the continental U.S. to stand up for immigrant rights. Many are unionists, especially members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, which initiated the campaign for the Freedom Rides. But others represent activist and civil rights organizations across the country.
Many are immigrants themselves, who came to U.S. illegally and have since become naturalized citizens. But some are undocumented--and have taken the risk of speaking out publicly anyway. Still others were born in the U.S. and are on the Freedom Ride to show their solidarity with those in their families, in their communities, in their unions. Socialist Worker talked to some of the Freedom Riders--and asked why they got on the bus.
Jose: I want to continue support the immigrants. I came to the United States many years ago, and now I am an American citizen. But the past was very sad, because we had a lot of troubles coming into the United States--especially coming over the border, 120 degrees in the desert.
That's why we continue working with immigrants today, because they deserve it. The situation in our countries is very sad--the economies especially. That is why people come to the United States. We are human. We have feelings, and we have pain. And now we need the respect. That's why I'm going to Washington, D.C.--to continue to support those people.
Armando: We've been on the road for four days. We went through different parts of northeastern California, and there were events scheduled to receive us. Yesterday, we crossed Idaho and stopped at Salt Lake City, Utah, and there was a very large event, with as many as 3,000 people.
This bus is the most interesting and ethnically diverse one, because there are 22 different nationalities. There are people from the Middle East, from Russia, from Ukraine, from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala, from Somalia--and there is an old woman from Korea who survived the holocaust of the Japanese [occupation].
But people are excited because for the first time, we are talking about a collective work in all the communities of the U.S. This is the first time that the unions have taken up this agenda of defending the rights of immigrants. In the past, the unions were in favor of closing the border, but now they understand that they made a mistake and they recognize it. Now they are in favor of those who sustain the U.S. economy--we the immigrants.
Remy: People of different nationalities...we have the same goal: to help these undocumented people so that they enjoy the same freedom that we, immigrant and citizen, are enjoying now. We cannot leave them behind. They should be with us. Everybody has a dream. Everybody has a family back in their country to support.
We have the vision that we have to help these people who are here illegally. We have to work harder to unite with one goal for this movement. This is just a continuation of the case of Rosa Parks, who refused to put up with Blacks getting the back of the bus. We wouldn't put up with that now. Now everybody has to be treated equally.
Nicolas: I came here about 30 years ago from Mexico. It was very tough for us when we first came. Discrimination was the biggest issue, and it remains the biggest issue.
They make you overwork--they're always pushing you. It's very uncomfortable to work like this, and especially when you're an immigrant. The solution would be that they have to know that we're here, and that they have to give us respect.
Martín: We come to support all these people that are bound for Washington and to ask that justice be done to all the people who are being exploited, who are being abused, and who go every day to their jobs without having the right to a drivers' license. We come say to the government that this is enough--no more discrimination. We want legalization with papers for all the immigrants who are here--and that no one should be exploited.
Francisco: I was born in the United States, and my parents are from Puerto Rico. Our families are all immigrants. We've all been immigrants at one time, moving from one place to another to find a better living. I see a lot of workers who are from different countries and do a lot of work here, and I want to be able to be there for them and represent them when they feel that they can't--because they're scared or there are barriers, like language.
Guadalupe: There is so much injustice--a great deal of injustice against immigrant workers. Their dignity is not respected, and they receive very low wages. I think that if we are working people who contribute to the economy of the country, and we are living here, we have the right to legalization--that we all work with [the proper] documentation, and we can stay in any place without being afraid.
Paulette: Since September 11 especially, this government has been targeting immigrants. That hit close to home when a couple of my coworkers had problems with their papers and were out of work for a while. And the more I thought about it, I realized the problems of what the U.S. government was trying to do to immigrants. I felt that it wasn't right, and with me being from four different ethnic backgrounds, I couldn't sit back and allow this to happen.
I wanted to play my role in trying to change the immigration laws so that people who have been here, working hard and paying taxes, can be with their families. It's important for me because I have a 2-year-old daughter, and I want her to know the importance of fighting for what you believe in.