Jubilant send-off rallies in four West Coast cities Sept. 20 launched the first contingent of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride (IWFR), the most dramatic and ambitious campaign for rights of foreign-born workers and their families in U.S. history.

In mobilizing to focus public attention on the injustice of the nation’s current immigration policy, the IWFR is taking a page from the Freedom Rides of 1961 in which Black and white protesters rode through the South challenging segregated buses and waiting rooms.

Goods and services produced by undocumented immigrants in the U.S. work force are the basis for much of the prosperity in this, the richest nation of the world. Yet the very existence of these nine million workers and their families is deemed “illegal” and they are forced into a shadowy world of super-exploitation, without access to the

tools of life – driver’s licenses, higher education, medical care.

At the same time, recent court decisions have lifted sanctions on employer violations of on-the-job rights of undocumented workers in every sphere – pay standards, union organizing rights, safety, and discrimination. With immigrant workers a major force in key sectors of the economy in every region of the country – food processing, construction, agriculture, manufacturing, health care, and service work, winning immigrant workers’ rights has emerged as a life and death issue for America’s labor movement as well. Terrence O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ Union says, “No worker in America is safe until the immigrant worker has the right to stand up to his boss and demand his rights.”

Legalization and the establishment of “a path to citizenship,” including voting rights, tops the IWFR’s agenda, according to Freedom Ride Chair Maria Elena Durazo, head of Local 11 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. Equally important, she says, are the goals of re-unification of families divided by unjust immigration laws, and full and equal rights for immigrant workers on the job. Durazo, who has traveled the nation on behalf of immigrant rights, told the Los Angeles send-off rally, “We want to be treated as all Americans because we do what all Americans do in this country.”

The goal of the ambitious action is more than making a one-time statement, says Durazo. “We are building local coalitions of existing immigrant rights groups, labor unions, religious and community groups to broaden the consensus for immigrant rights,” she told the World. To accomplish these goals, Durazo says, “We need a new Congress and a new White House.” She sees the Freedom Ride as an important part of the build up to the 2004 elections.

Buses of immigrants and supporters, leaving from ten cities, are traveling across the country and will arrive in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 1, where they will undertake two days of lobbying before a final mass rally in Queens, N.Y., on Oct 4.

Each bus has a unique route and the over 100 sites visited along the way will highlight a struggle of immigrant workers.

On a glorious afternoon that bathed the nation’s west coast in early autumn sunshine, send-off rallies in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, showcased the remarkable diversity of the nation’s immigrant population and their particular and common struggles.

With gospel singers, balloons, and huge labor contingents of unionists in bright-colored T-shirts, the city of Los Angeles demonstrated all-out support of its 140 riders. Mayor James Hahn delivered a city proclamation declaring Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride Day.

Eliseo Medina, national vice president of the SEIU, called on every immigrant to get involved in the elections, working against the recall of Gov. Gray Davis and for the defeat of Bush in 2004. He stated, “While immigrants may not be able to vote, they can phone voters, walk door-to-door and get out the vote.”

Grey Pichinte works two jobs to make ends meet. A janitor and member of SEIU Local 1877, she told the World why she is taking two weeks off work and leaving her family to fight for the rights of immigrant workers like herself. “We clean hotel rooms, we work in restaurants, we support the economy and we deserve justice,” she said.

Bay Area Freedom Riders and 5,000 supporters gathered at Yerba Buena Gardens, where a waterfall surrounds the engraved words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. A Native American drum group accompanied the riders marching to a Civic Center welcome by Governor Gray Davis, Rep. Barbara Lee, (D-Calif.), and Delores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers.

Immigrants from Arab or majority Muslim countries face particular problems. Many have been deported based on minor visa violations, tearing apart whole families. Navil Ahmad, representing the Council on American Islamic Relations, said he is going on the Freedom Ride to see families re-united, regardless of immigration status.

Ahmad has also experienced racial discrimination on the job, he said, including denial of promotions. “We want to spread the word across the country about equal rights for everyone, so that all voices can be heard,” he said.

“I have been in the U.S. for three years and hope for a better future, because it is now my home,” said Juan Carlos Huezo, an airport security worker in the Bay Area and member of SEIU Local 790. Huezo said he is happy to be a Freedom Rider because he sees it as a way to help people to become citizens. He said many of his co-workers are afraid to speak out for fear of damaging their ability to be joined with their families. “I still want to be able to go back to El Salvador to see my great-grandma who raised me,” Huezo added.

The Seattle rally, held near the International Fountain, was attended by 350 people including the Seattle Labor Chorus and the Total Experience Gospel Choir.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) called the Freedom Ride a way of organizing “the resistance that needs to grow before the next elections.”

“I am an immigrant and proud of it!” Philippine-born State Sen. Velma Veloria said. Veloria is one of the riders from Seattle.

Also riding will be Maria Fuentes, a janitor and a very determined member of SEIU Local 6. Fuentes has been fired several times for union organizing among immigrant janitors in nearby Bellevue.

One bus of LA Freedom Riders will hit Dallas, Texas, Sept. 27. The city’s unions were proud to put up the money to pay for their overnight accommodations, Jim McCasland, of the Dallas AFL-CIO, said at a City Hall press conference.

The conference, called by Councilman Steve Salazar, displayed the unprecedented breadth of the North Texas Coalition supporting the IWFR. Speaking for the Dallas Catholic diocese, Sister Nancy Sullivan said, “We stand firm that the human rights of immigrants come from God and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

UNITE! organizer Willy Gonzalez invoked the time-honored slogan of the workers’ movement, saying,“‘An injury to one is an injury to all,’ has no exceptions.”

The president of the Alliance of Dallas Educators, Aimee Bolender, said immigrant children “need rights and freedoms to develop to their full potential.”

Dr. Scott Moulton of the Texas Doctor’s Council reported that immigrants suffer a horrendous accident rate in Texas. “Many die at their jobs,” he said. North Texas Jobs with Justice will work just as hard in opposing the FTAA as it did to make the IWFR successful, said activist Gene Lantz.

On Sept. 27 and the following days, another wave of buses will hit the road from Chicago, Minneapolis, Houston, Boston, and Miami, and stops will include historic sites of Civil Rights struggles.

“The first freedom rides occurred in the 1840s and were a protest against Jim Crow laws imposing segregation in train and carriage travel in Pennsylvania, New York and New England,” said Rev. James Lawson, one of the co-ordinators of the 1961 Freedom Rides. During the 1961 Freedom Rides, although buses were burned, and riders savagely attacked, the right to access to public accommodations was established. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, millions of African American citizens across the South won the right to vote.

Evelina Alarcon, Marc Brodine, Jim Lane, Judith Le Blanc and Lucille Whitney contributed to this article. The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.