Freedom Riders take battle to Congress

CHICAGO – In an atmosphere charged with emotion and determination reminiscent of last year’s Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, simultaneous gatherings of immigrant workers and supporters in 30 cities announced their united support for a new immigration reform bill May 4. The legislation, introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), is named SOLVE – the Safe Orderly Legal Visa and Enforcement Act.

It is a “groundbreaking bill that deals with the major issues important to immigrant communities: a path to legalization, re-unification of families, and labor rights,” Juan Salgado, president of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), told the Chicago gathering. And, he added, it brings together community, labor and church allies.

Chicago Federation of Labor Secretary-Treasurer Tim Leahy pledged the support of that organization’s half million affiliated members for the efforts to pass the bill. They would start, he told the World, with taking the legislation to the seven members of the city’s congressional delegation.

The bill lays down a path to legalization for the country’s 7 million to 11 million undocumented workers. “They have earned the right to be here,” said ICIRR Policy Director Fred Tsao. The bill would allow those with five years in the U.S. who have worked 24 months to apply immediately for permanent residency “green cards.” While their applications are pending, they could work and travel and be protected from deportation, Tsao said. Those with less than five years would have a “transitional” status allowing them to build up the two-year work history needed.

The current immigration system, which keeps parents and children, husbands and wives, separated, waiting for years and even decades for visas, “steals life,” according to Bishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller, speaking for the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. The church is fighting for families to be together, he told the World. Family unification is an issue that can’t wait, he says.

Under the proposed legislation, spouses and minor children of permanent residents would no longer suffer heartbreaking backlogs for visas, and could immediately get papers to rejoin their family members. The bill also drastically increases the number of visas available to other categories such as brothers and sisters and adult children of U.S. citizens.

Many labor rights are protected under what ICIRR’s Tsao described as the SOLVE Act’s “break the mold” guest worker program. The bill allows for 100,000 seasonal visas and 250,000 visas for longer-term workers every year. The latter would be good for two years, renewable and with the right to apply for permanent residency. While the visa would be tied to a specific employer, after three months the worker would have the right to change employers. The immigrant workers would be covered by all current labor legislation, including minimum wage and labor laws.

“This new bill brings hope to me and our undocumented community,” Elvira Arellano said in Spanish to the gathering at the Chicago headquarters of Service Employees International Union Local 1. Arellano, a participant in last fall’s Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, told the World last October, “Justice exists only when you fight for it.” She has been fighting deportation orders since Dec. 10, 2002, when the FBI came banging on her door looking for terrorists and bombs. She had been employed at O’Hare airport, cleaning planes from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., struggling to support herself and her 5-year-old son Saul on $6.50 an hour.

The SOLVE Act differs from the Bush administration proposal, put forward earlier this year, in that it allows immigrants to move from temporary to permanent status and eventual citizenship. According to Rep. Gutierrez, Bush’s proposal “says to immigrants you are good enough to work the worst jobs for three years and then maybe for another three years,” but then denies them the right to stay. But “our plan rewards work and welcomes immigrants’ contributions,” Gutierrez said.

The bill also restores workers’ rights lost in 2002 when a Supreme Court ruling gave employers carte blanche to violate labor laws. The Court’s infamous “Hoffman Plastic” decision eliminated penalties for employers who violate rights of undocumented workers.

Southern California Communist Party Organizer Rosalio Muñoz applauded the introduction of the SOLVE bill. “If it’s adding to people’s rights, that’s important,” he told the World. Muñoz was also heartened to see the Democrats go on the offensive on immigration issues in this period running up to the November election. “It’s a sign that they are using Congress as a battleground now,” he said.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union President John Wilhelm were among those joining the Washington gathering. Speaking there, Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, made it clear that support for the SOLVE Act would be a litmus test for candidates seeking support from Latinos and immigrants. “We will continue to insist on action, not simply rhetoric,” he said.

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.click here for Spanish text