Armed with solidarity, songs and the legacy of America’s civil rights movement, two busloads of immigrants and their African-American, white, Arab-, Asian-, and Latin-American supporters faced down dozens of Department of Homeland Security agents and their dogs in the heart of Texas last week. The drama played out at one of the border patrol “checkpoints” set up to apprehend and deport suspected “illegal” immigrants.

The agents placed the riders in a detention center and attempted to interrogate them about their immigration status. But the riders asserted both their constitutional right to remain silent and their human right to sing. University of Arizona student Inez Duarte wrote in her journal, “The Freedom Riders sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ These songs are our gospel. These songs keep us strong.”

This solidarity was reinforced by a flood of phone calls and faxes from the AFL-CIO, the Catholic Church, and members of Congress and, no doubt, by the fact that 16 other buses and a thousand other Freedom Riders were at that very moment crisscrossing the nation carrying a message to Washington, D.C., from the tens of thousands of people who had come out to greet them. The border patrol halted the interrogations and released the buses after a tense four hours.

The dramatic outcome of this act of mass heroism illustrates the important contribution made by the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. It has put immigrant rights high on the nation’s political agenda.

Thirty million U.S. residents are foreign-born, a result of the fact that migration of workers is an intrinsic, on-going feature of capitalism, and of our country’s history. Winning voting rights for an entire section of our working class which had been marginalized and incorrectly viewed as peripheral and temporary would be a fundamental expansion of democracy in our country.

The IWFR journey culminated in mass lobbying on Capitol Hill by those denied the right to vote and their supporters, boldly asserting the demand for a voice in the political process for these millions of disenfranchised. By demanding the right to citizenship and rights at work for immigrants, the IWFR points to this bloc of worker/voters as a huge resource for our working class – for both building the labor movement and expanding the electorate, including in places of low union density like the South and the “heartland” states.

The IWFR was conceived by HERE, the hotel and restaurant employees union, in response to the problems faced by many of its members, whose lives were shadowed by the inequality, fear, and destruction of families that have resulted from unjust immigration policies. HERE was joined by five of the nation’s most actively organizing unions – UNITE!, Laborers, Service Employees, Food and Commercial Workers, and Farm Workers – and the AFL-CIO’s constituency groups representing African American, Latino, Asian Pacific, women and GLBT unionists. The organizers reached out to African American leaders and civil rights groups who, in turn, embraced the link with the historic Freedom Rides of the 1960s. Local unions, Native American groups, the religious community, and immigrants of every nationality were included in local coalitions. Unions assigned resources and core staff who worked for months to build ongoing local coalitions. With unprecedented unity based on the IWFR’s goals – legalization and a path to citizenship, civil rights, workplace rights, and family unification – the question of immigrants’ rights, which employers and the right have used as a divisive wedge issue, was transformed into a unity issue.

The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride sets the tone for the 2004 elections by taking the offensive. It has connected the issues of democracy and on-the-job rights, built local coalitions, and perhaps most important, linked the people’s struggles to grassroots political participation. At many of the 100 Freedom Ride rallies across the country, participants, including the undocumented, eagerly received “civic participation” kits handed out by union organizers. The kits contained information on phone banking, precinct walking, voter registration and get-out-the-vote activities. The IWFR puts the people’s movement on the road to making voting an act of mass fightback in 2004.

Roberta Wood is labor editor of the PWW. She can be reached at rwood@pww.org

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