OAKLAND PARK, Fla. – “Across America we’ll be getting on buses to dramatize the need for a road to citizenship for millions of America’s immigrant workers,” declared John Wilhelm, president of the 265,000-member Hotel and Restaurant Employees union (HERE). Wilhelm described the “Freedom Ride for Justice” last month to a kick-off rally of hundreds of Haitian, Dominican, Mexican and Central American immigrant workers and their families and supporters at an overflow church rally in this working-class neighborhood.

Wilhem declared, “No human being is illegal. The people who do the work that runs the country have to have the right to become citizens and vote.” Stating, “We believe in family values,” Wilhelm called for the “right to reunify families that have been divided by our laws.”

Freedom ride buses will leave in October from eight cities across the country, from Seattle to Miami, stopping for events in cities and towns along the way. After lobbying activities in Washington, D.C., the freedom rides will culminate in a mass rally in New York City.

The rally here was a tri-lingual event, so triple cheers rang out as Terry O’Sullivan, head of LIUNA, the Laborers’ Union, was translated into Creole and Spanish, vowing, “As we ride through the cities and towns of this country, we will make it known to the president and Congress, we will not continue to accept the immigration laws of this country.”

Newly organized LIUNA members, dressed in bright red shirts, made up an especially enthusiastic section of the audience. LIUNA has set up a community center north of Ft. Lauderdale, and in a nine-month-old campaign has already organized 17 percent of the market share in the concrete industry, which is almost entirely immigrant workers.

Rev. James Lawson, a veteran of the 1961 Freedom Rides, traveled from Los Angeles for the rally. He said that the point of the Freedom Ride 2003 is “to open up this country to immigrants in the same way the 1960s Freedom Riders opened the U.S. to integration of public facilities” for African Americans and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Rev. Lawson reminded the crowd that Moses said you should treat the stranger and alien like you treat yourself, and that “Jesus says the laborer deserves his wages.”

Rev. Lawson added, “In non-violent struggle, there is massive power for ordinary people.” In Spanish and Creole, the crowd responded to that recognition of their power with shouts of “Si, se puede!” and “Oui nou kapab!”

Eliseo Medina, international executive vice president of SEIU, the Service Employees union, looked ahead to the 2004 election; “We need two things: a Congress to pass the bill and a president to sign it. So we need ‘hechos,’ actions. Part of our Freedom Ride will be to remind people we have power to vote.” Medina urged those who are permanent legal resident to submit their citizenship applications in order to vote in the 2004 election.

Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO and head of its immigration committee, led a delegation of national leaders of various unions from the national labor federation’s Executive Council meeting in Hollywood, Fla.

In addition to leaders from unions representing needletrades, farmworkers, ironworkers and many others, the group also included representatives from Students Against Sweatshops and National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and more.

As the crowd cleared out of the church to make way for that evening’s service, Florida State Sen. Tony Hill remarked, “I think the preacher might be a bit envious of the energy here.”

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org