NEW HAVEN, Conn. – The basement of St. Rose Church was jam-packed, and the crowd spilled out into the streets for Connecticut’s statewide Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride kick-off rally July 23.

The working class neighborhood of Fair Haven, where the church is located, is the center of the fight for immigrant rights and for opening the doors of Yale University, the city’s largest employer, to Latino workers.

“The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride is continuing the proud tradition of African American freedom fighters and their allies who took risks, and sacrificed for their rights,” said Maria Elena Durazo, vice president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union and chair of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, who traveled from Los Angeles to participate in the event.

Beginning Sept. 20, buses will depart from 12 cities and make stops in 80 local communities along the way to build support for legalization, family re-unification, and protection of worker rights on the job without regard to legal status. A hundred busloads of Connecticut residents are expected to travel to Flushing Meadows Park in New York for the rally and festival that will culminate the Freedom Ride on Oct. 4.

“The government wants to keep the 30 million immigrants in this country moving, confused, uncertain, unstable so they can be further exploited,” charged Durazo. She electrified the crowd of 500 by connecting the Freedom Ride to the current sharp battle with Yale for union contracts and a social contract with the community. “If Yale refuses to be fair, and does not live up to what they should do in the community, we will make sure that freedom fighters everywhere in the country know. You will not be alone.”

International students and scholars bring great profit to the university, enabling it to do its research, said Qin Qin, a member of the Yale Graduate Employee Student Organizing Committee who is from China.

Joyce Hamilton, director of DemocracyWorks, emigrated from Jamaica as a child. Ivan Dario Hincapie, from Colombia, is an activist with Unidad Latina en Accion. Their groups were in the forefront of the fight to stop legislation restricting drivers’ licenses for immigrants. The Freedom Ride is “the best opportunity … to reverse measures being passed with negative impact on immigrant communities,” said Hamilton.

Hincapie linked the immigrants’ cause with labor’s historic struggle for the 40-hour workweek. “They should pay us extra when we work more than 40 hours,” he said. “We have earned our rights through hard work. … Let’s get united for social justice.”

Sabino Hernandez, from Mexico, a worker at Chef Solutions in North Haven, reported the company is “oppressing workers so they won’t be able to unionize.” He pledged to fight to end the campaign of intimidation, and “make sure people can have their union.”

Attorney Nawaz Wahla, who came to Hartford from Pakistan 15 years ago, denounced the Patriot Act and the requirements for annual registration of Muslim immigrants. “Immigrants are the backbone of this country,” he said.

Mazin Quimsiyeh, a Palestinian professor at Yale, decried the deportation of 10,000 mostly Arab American immigrants, emphasizing “We don’t want people to be divided by categories.”

Six regional organizing committees have been formed throughout Connecticut. For information, contact the steering committee at (203) 865-7315, ext. 217.

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