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For legalization and workers' rights
Freedom ride for immigrant rights

October 3, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7

FORTY YEARS ago, supporters of civil rights set out in buses on Freedom Rides to take a stand against Jim Crow segregation. They were met across the U.S. South by mobs of racists, who beat them and firebombed their buses.

Why we got on the bus
Read interviews with the Freedom Riders explaining why they are participating.


Today, activists have set out on another Freedom Ride, and one of their buses was met outside El Paso, Texas. By the U.S. Border Patrol. ALAN MAASS reports on the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

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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 "Si 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."

The Border Patrol's actions in El Paso shows 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."

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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