The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride Rallies in New York City

By Erica Pearson

Ecuadorian immigrants Cesar Leon and Margarita Garcia, who now live in the Bronx, followed the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride from its very beginnings. When buses full of immigrants and supporters left places like Seattle and Los Angeles, they read about it here in New York. “We checked in the newspapers, day after day,” said Garcia.

They also read about the rallies and vigils that the freedom riders held in cities across the country, from Tucson, Arizona to Boise, Idaho, as they made their way to New York City.

So when the two-week campaign –with 18 buses from 10 different cities – converged in Queens on October 4 with a rally in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Leon and Garcia were among the tens of thousands that gathered to demonstrate for immigrants’ rights. “We are all human and have rights,” said Leon. “There need to be changes.”

At the Queens rally, demonstrators listened to speeches from politicians, church leaders, union representatives and others, and danced along with Mexican rancheros and reggae songs, waving flags from Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico and many other countries. “Never in our nation’s history have we had a day like today and a mobilization as powerful as in the last two weeks. You have changed the debate forever,” Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum told the demonstrators.

Freedom riders from Illinois wore bright red t-shirts that read, “got immigrants?” Riders from the Miami bus yelled chants in Creole: “What do we want? Justice!” Haitian immigrant Marie Sylvain, dancing to the Mexican group Bronco, said, “We have to fight for our own freedom. That is why I rode from Miami, to show that.”

The Ride

The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride campaign was inspired by the 1961 Freedom Rides, where civil rights demonstrators rode buses to the South to help end segregation in bus terminals. The 2003 ride called on lawmakers to grant legal status to illegal immigrants and create more family reunification visas. The campaign also pushed for better protection of civil liberties and labor rights for immigrants, saying that they are often exploited in the workplace. When the buses stopped in Washington, D.C., riders met with their representatives to talk about these issues.

But another major aim of the ride was to simply raise awareness about the difficulties immigrants face in America. The organizers chose New York City as the final destination because, said Anna Fink, director of the non-profit Unite for Dignity, “New York is America’s first immigrant city, it is America’s best immigrant city and America’s largest immigrant city.”


Immigrants rights groups were not the only supporters and organizers of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. In fact, organized labor was the campaign’s main sponsor, as unions like the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are now working on campaigns to improve working conditions for immigrants and trying to get them to become union members.

Religious groups and major church leaders endorsed the ride, and Cardinal Edward Egan, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York spoke to the Queens crowd. “Families are being damaged by cruel separation and in all too many instances shameful advantage is being taken of men and women in the work force who do not have proper papers,” he said.

Civil rights leaders, including many of the original 1961 freedom riders, also gave their support. The 2003 ride, while much less violent than the 1961 civil rights ride, where one of the buses was firebombed and racists severely beat some riders, was not without difficulties. The Miami bus was threatened by the Klu Klux Klan, and had a police escort through much of the South.

Immigration officials in Texas stopped two buses traveling from Los Angeles, and threatened to arrest or deport riders, holding them in cells at a border patrol station. The riders held up badges that said they were exercising their right to remain silent, sang “We Shall Overcome” instead of answering officials’ questions, and refused to show their documents.

“We were told we could be arrested if we didn’t answer their questions,” ride leader Maria Elena Durazo told LA Weekly. Union presidents, members of Congress, church leaders and others called the Bush administration to ask that the buses be allowed to continue, and three hours later officials let the buses, with everyone on board, keep driving on their way to New York City.

Representative John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia and an organizer of the 1961 rides, told the tens of thousands of immigrants gathered at the Queens rally, “Forty-two years later, the freedom riders of 2003, you, are going to win. We are one people, we are one family, we are one house, and we are not going to let anybody turn us around. We have come too far.”

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