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Immigrant Labor Rights Activists Head Toward Washington - 2003-09-25


Immigrant rights advocates from 10 U.S. cities are heading for Washington in what they call a "freedom ride," reminiscent of civil rights caravans of the 1960s.

The mood was buoyant at the headquarters of the local labor federation, one of four West Coast starting points for what is being billed as the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. Three buses with 140 riders were leaving this city. They are among 900 riders departing 10 U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Seattle.

Along the way, they will meet with religious, civic and labor groups, arriving in Washington D.C. October 1. They will hold meetings with members of Congress, before heading for New York to hold a major rally October 4.

Riders ate Mexican pastries and cornbread "tamales" as they prepared to board their buses. They chanted in Spanish "Yes we can," the cheer used by the United Farm Workers Union as it organized migrant workers in the fields of California.

Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farmworkers Union with the late Cesar Chavez, sees this ride as part of an ongoing effort. "This is continuation of a civil rights struggle in the United States of America, for farm workers and for folks in the south, the African Americans that wanted the right to vote and to end segregation, and of course now it's for the rights of immigrants," she said.

Federal officials estimate that seven million people were in the United States illegally in the year 2000. Unofficial estimates today range from eight to 10 million, with the majority of undocumented residents coming from Mexico. Ride organizer Maria Elena Durazo says these people lead uncertain lives, living under the constant threat of deportation.

"They take care of our children, they're the gardeners, they work in hospitals, do our health care, they take care of our sick and our elderly, they work in construction and build our cities," said Ms. Durazo. "And they are productive citizens of this society. They need to have in fact that legal recognition."

Congress approved a program in 1986 that eventually legalized the status of three million illegal residents. Critics like Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform say another amnesty would only penalize those who came here legally, and would encourage more illegal border crossings.

"People who have gone through the process and played by the rules, and often have to wait years and years for the opportunity to come to this country, are going to be saying that people who didn't wait their turn, who disregarded our laws, are going to be rewarded," Mr. Mehlman said. He says the threat of terrorism makes it imperative that immigrants are screened before they enter the country.

The issue is complicated because many immigrant families are made up of both legal and illegal residents. Children born in the United States automatically have U.S. citizenship, regardless of the status of their parents.

Freedom rider Nemesio Sanchez, a retired hotel worker from Hilo, Hawaii, is an immigrant who wants others to have the same opportunities that he and his family had. "I came from the Philippines in 1967, guided by my dreams and hopes, looking for a better future," he says.

Mr. Sanchez is a member of the International Longshore Workers Union, and Miguel Contreras of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor says the U.S. labor movement, which is co-sponsoring the caravan, is returning to its roots. He says American unions were built by European Jews who worked in New York garment plants, Slovak miners in Pennsylvania, and Polish factory workers in Chicago. He says the cross-country ride will draw attention to the plight of today's immigrants.

"This is about mobilization, not legalization. This is the first step to put this idea on the national agenda, political agenda," Mr. Sanchez said. "Much like in the south, the freedom riders were just part of a bigger agenda, we're here to create mass movement about immigration reform."

Critic Ira Mehlman says unions, once opposed to illegal immigration as a threat to U.S. workers, have lost high-paying jobs to low-wage immigrant workers or overseas factories. So now, he says, unions are focusing on recruiting immigrants. He says many businesses look to illegal immigrants as a source of cheap labor, and that together with ethnic rights groups, the three special interests form a powerful lobby that is discouraging enforcement of immigration law.

But for Shirley Smith of Los Angeles, this cross-country drive is about respect for human rights, and it brings back memories. In the early 1960s, she joined a freedom ride in Dallas, to demand that Texas schools be integrated.

Now an organizer for the Service Employees International Union, she thinks the plight of illegal immigrants needs similar attention from the people she will meet across the country. "Our mission is to let them know that everybody is equal. And we're tired of this hiding in the dark, we're tired of being invisible," she said. "And everybody needs to be free in this country, I'll put it like that, to do as anybody else."

As the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride left Los Angeles, organizer Maria Elena Durazo offered words of encouragement to the riders heading eastward, "We're going to stick together."