Over 100 students, civil rights and labor activists will work this summer to systematically increase the immigrant voting constituency in the electoral “battleground” states of Arizona and Florida, in the New American Freedom Summer 2004.

The project commemorates the 40th anniversary of the historic Freedom Summer ’64, when activists nationwide responded to the call of civil rights organizations for volunteer voter registration and education efforts to break the back of the disenfranchisement of African Americans in Mississippi.

Arizona and Florida have been chosen because they represent the frontline of the battle for immigrant rights, said project spokesperson Maria Echaveste, a former deputy chief of staff for President Clinton, at a Washington, D.C., press conference announcing the project, June 23.

“Arizona is the scene of death every day” as immigrants trek scores of miles through 120-degree desert heat in search of jobs, and in Florida “every day, Haitian refugees are detained for days, weeks and months, only to be deported back to Haiti” where there is no government and well-reported starvation, said Echaveste.

In Florida, the volunteers will work to register 50,000 naturalized immigrants working with the Mi Familia Vota (My Family Votes) project. In Arizona, volunteers will work in community organization projects of the Industrial Areas Foundation, in Phoenix, Tucson and two border cities where there are large Latino immigrant communities.

Volunteer Pamela Merkeson, a graduate of the African American Studies program at Georgia State University, said at the press conference, “I want to bring my knowledge” to bear on the struggle for immigrant rights today. “My struggle as an African American is intertwined with the struggles of others who are trying to gain equality,” she said.

V. Lashmi Sridaran, a first-generation immigrant from India, said, “I want a chance to make this country more democratic,” and noted that her family and others have noticed that they have been robbed of their civil rights since 9/11.

The volunteers began a training program June 28 in Canton, Miss., where they are learning about the civil and voting rights struggles of the 1960s as well as voter registration, education and organizing skills. Then they will get out into the field.

New American Freedom Summer builds on last year’s Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride to continue to forge a lasting movement committed to reforming the nation’s immigration laws. It is a project of the New American Opportunity campaign, whose participants include National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, National Council of La Raza, Service Employees International Union, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employee International Union, United Food and Commercial Workers Union, National Immigration Forum and others.

“I’m thankful to be old enough to have participated in the 1964 project and young enough for this one,” said Hollis Watkins, a leader in the original Freedom Summer. Watkins termed the conditions of African Americans in 1964 and those of immigrants in 2004 “remnants of the Dred Scott decision” of 1857 when the Supreme Court declared that African Americans, slave or free, could never be citizens of the United States. Watkins added that “further empowerment today will strengthen” democracy with support for new laws and “for the enforcement of laws” that prevent a return to the policies of the Dred Scott decision.

The author can be reached at rosalio_munoz@sbcglobal.net.

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