Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride: A new movement is born

QUEENS, N.Y. – Over 100,000 people greeted the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride (IWFR) here Oct. 4, celebrating the birth of a new movement with its sights set on making the 2004 elections a battle for immigrant rights. The dynamic, coordinated effort of unions, immigrant and civil liberties groups, clergy, and elected officials was initiated by HERE, the hotel and restaurant employees union, and sponsored by the AFL-CIO. Local labor-community coalitions organized 900 riders from ten cities who traveled 20,000 miles carrying the campaign to 103 events, in the tradition of the 1960s Freedom Rides for civil rights in the South.

On Oct. 1, the Freedom Riders lobbied 120 members of Congress for legislation to create a path to legalization and citizenship for all immigrants, to allow for the reunification of families and for protection of rights in the workplace. “We need to organize and use the power of our vote. That’s the next step in the struggle,” Eliseo Medina, vice president of the Service Employees International Union told the World. “It’s not just about immigrant workers rights, but about living wages, about decent education. This is the beginning of us taking back America.”

Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), a Freedom Rider in the 1960s, declared, “Martin Luther King would be very proud. We are white, Black, Hispanic, Native American – we are one family, in one house, and we are not going to let anybody turn us around.”

The new movement for civil liberties includes elected officials responding to post-9/11 injustices, according to Hiram Monserrate, a city councilman from New York, where 37 percent of the population is made up of immigrants. Monserrate successfully fought Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s move to force city workers to report undocumented immigrants to the INS. He told the World, “The stripping away of civil rights

and liberties is a wake-up call to all of us to get out the vote, to send a message to the right-wing that you can not just run amok.”

“Bush lied about what he was going to do with immigration and naturalization,” making demagogic appeals to Latino and other immigrant communities during the 2000 elections, charged State Sen. Tom Duane from Manhattan, N.Y. “Bush ran on a platform of speeding up the immigration process and making it more efficient,” Duane said, but “in fact, it’s gotten worse.”

No issue is more heartfelt in the immigrant community than keeping the family together. Joaquin Zivera’s wife and children were terrified when he was arrested and threatened with deportation, the California Freedom Rider told the World. He has lived in the U.S. since he was seven and worked as a county counselor for ten years. “At the time of my arrest I’d been living an above-average life, a homeowner, paying taxes, contributing to my community. The way I was rewarded by the government was by them trying to deport me,” he continued. “During that time, the community backed me up. There are other people out there who are facing deportation, or they’ve already been deported. That’s why I’m here.”

Bruce Raynor, international president of UNITE, the garment and textile workers union, was met with cheers of agreement from the crowd when he declared, “We have liars in the nation’s capital who say they’re for family values but will not support reunification of families.”

The labor movement and immigrant communities have changed with the experiences of organizing the Freedom Rides, said IWFR National Director Dave Glaser. “Employer resistance to organizing is going to have to reckon with the deep passion for justice we saw as we traveled across the country,” he predicted, with immigrant workers seeing unions as a vehicle for achieving that justice.

Some of the riders already had tested the new movement’s power to influence public policy. Christine Newman-Ortiz, of Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee, described how a demonstration forced Wisconsin GOP State Assemblyman Frank Lasee to change his position on allowing in-state tuition for undocumented students at state colleges. At first he was opposed to it, but after there was a public protest, she reported, Lasee agreed to put the question before his Government Operations and Spending Limitations Committee.

“The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride was not an event, but the creation of a new movement,” Maria Elena Durazo, IWFR national chair and general vice president of the HERE told the World. “Immigrants now understand we are not alone, we have allies.” As the crowd left, she urged them to become freedom fighters, “Whether you are second generation, or 14th,” she said, “we have to build a new movement in the United States of America.”

The author can be reached at jleblanc@pww.org. José A. Cruz, Dan Margolis and Elena Mora contributed to this article.