WASHINGTON – Busloads of Immigrant Workers Freedom Riders brought their agenda into the heart of the nation’s political arena, Oct. 1, demanding Congress enact comprehensive reform of the nation’s immigration laws.

Boldly declaring, “No human being is illegal,” the 900 immigrants and their supporters delivered a powerful and historic message from millions of workers forced to live in the shadows of illegality.

“If the politicians don’t hear this,” said Minnesotan Teresa Ortiz, “something’s wrong!”

Abdullah Furmully, a Freedom Rider from Hayward, Calif., told the World, “We are here to carry our message of immigrants’ rights to D.C.” Furmully said three main issues highlight the Freedom Rides. The first, he said, is legalization and a road to citizenship for the country’s 9 million undocumented immigrants. The second, “protection of workers’ rights and civil rights.” The third, “family reunification.”

The riders began their cross-country trek from Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles Sept. 23, and were joined on the road by contingents from Las Vegas, Houston, Miami, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Boston in the following days. They were greeted by big crowds at union rallies and church-sponsored potluck suppers in 100 towns and cities as they crossed the nation.

Two Freedom Ride buses, originating in Los Angeles, were stopped and detained for four hours in Texas by border patrol agents. (See pages 10-11 for a

first-hand account.) The Texas AFL-CIO and church officials moved quickly to pressure elected officials and the news media to demand their release. Three U.S. congressmen demanded, in a letter to the head of the Department of Homeland Security, that the riders be released.

Rafael Begazo, a high school sophomore of Peruvian descent, rode the bus with 50 others from Minnesota. During a rally at the Baltimore campus of the University of Maryland, Oct. 1, Begazo said his hopes for a college education are blocked because he is ineligible for in-state tuition despite the fact he has lived in Minnesota seven years

Begazo told the World he will spend a day on Capitol Hill urging Minnesota lawmakers to endorse the “Dream Act” that would qualify him and others like him for in-state tuition.

Maryland State Assemblywoman Salima Siler Mariott told the Baltimore crowd that the Freedom Rides of 1961 made it possible for her to enter and graduate from the then newly desegregated University of Maryland. “You are standing on the shoulders of the freedom rides of forty years ago,” she said. Last session, the Maryland General Assembly approved a bill to provide in-state tuition to immigrants but Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich vetoed it.

David Koff, IWFR media spokesperson, told the World that the Freedom Ride is not about any particular piece of legislation. Rather, he said, “We are asking lawmakers to sign onto legislation that fulfills the goals of the Freedom Ride,” including legislation that will provide a path to citizenship for the nation’s undocumented immigrants.

“The foreign-born population is 30 million,” said Koff, and while that includes many naturalized citizens, “if you look at voting patterns across the U.S., non-citizen residents would represent a very significant bloc of new voters.”

They are not waiting, continued Koff, but plunging into other forms of civic participation, such as canvassing, phone banking, and the Freedom Ride, itself, “demonstrating the political power of immigrants in the U.S. The Freedom Ride is about making the democratic political process much more accessible to these workers who live here, pay taxes and obey the laws,” he said.

As the Freedom Ride crossed the country, in many places organizers circulated “civic participation” materials to crowds urging folks to commit to participating in get-out-the-vote campaigns.

The IWFR, Koff added, has helped crystallize the emerging coalition of organized labor, faith-based movements, and youth and students. “With the political season upon us, these coalitions are going to continue to raise the question of immigrant rights on Capitol Hill and also with the candidates in next year’s election.”

Tom Perez, a law professor at the University of Maryland specializing in civil rights law, drew strong applause when he urged the Baltimore crowd to fight back against the repressive anti-immigrant policies of George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Perez told the World, “In the name of fighting terrorism, basic rights are being taken away and immigrants are targeted. But there are millions of immigrants who are contributing to our economy, to our community. We need to acknowledge their presence, embrace them and allow them to escape the underground.”

Corporate America, he charged, reaps billions in profits from these undocumented workers. “It’s a lot easier to exploit a person who is undocumented. Who are they going to turn to? They are not likely to go to the authorities. It creates a perverse incentive for unscrupulous employers to take advantage of their workers … It is time to grant these workers legal status.”

Tony Pecinovsky, Jim Lane and Kirsten Almberg contributed to this article. The authors can be reached atand rwood@pww.org