Gotham Gazette

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Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride

More than 40 years ago Edward Culvert boarded a bus bound for the South in an effort to test President John F. Kennedy's commitment to civil rights. The mass action, part of the historic Freedom Rides of the 1960s, helped popularize the civil rights movement and laid the foundation for the many grass roots movements that define that period in American history. "If it worked once, why not repeat the process?" asked Culvert, now a professor of Black Studies at Lehman College.

Supporters of immigrant-rights are hoping to achieve similar results in the forthcoming Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, an event inspired by the Freedom Rides that will bring thousands of advocates from across the nation to New York in an effort to draw attention to immigrants' rights and rally support for a new road map to U.S. citizenship.

The gathering, which is scheduled to take place on October 4 in Flushing Meadows Park, Queens, will mark the end of a journey from nine cities, with caravans expected to depart from Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Boston, Chicago Las Vegas and Minneapolis.

The riders expect to publicize the plight of immigrant workers through a number of events planned along the way, and will meet with Congressional representatives in Washington D.C. before arriving here. "The first Freedom Rides publicized something people really didn't know about," said Culvert. "This will do the same, but on an even larger scale."

Organizers, including the AFL-CIO and hundreds of faith-based organizations, are also hoping that the event will put the issue of immigrant workers' rights back on the national agenda as the 2004 presidential campaigns commence. Integrating the nation's estimated 11 to 18 million undocumented workers was a top priority in Washington throughout the early months of President George W. Bush's term, but largely fell away following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

" Many civil rights leaders are looking at the plight of immigrant workers in the same way they looked at the plight of African Americans and other minorities in the 1960s," said Brian McLaughlin, New York Assemblyman and president of the Central Labor Council who serves as the chairman of Freedom Ride. "September 11 accelerated concern over many of the civil rights and civil liberties for immigrants that are now jeopardized by the Homeland Security Act," said McLaughlin.

According to McLaughlin, Freedom Ride will focus on three demands:
• Legalization for all immigrant workers,
• The right of immigrant workers to reunite with their families
• Protection of immigrants in the workplace.

"Immigrants today are harassed in their communities, exploited at their job sites, and separated from their families," said McLaughlin.

The transfer of what was once the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security and tough new immigration laws have further complicated the process of naturalization for undocumented workers, also known as illegal aliens. Indefinitely long waits and the threat of deportation often discourage immigrants from pursuing the legal path to citizenship, and according to Freedom Ride organizers, immigrants who endure the long road to citizenship sometimes spend years separated from their families.

Freedom Ride isn't the first collaboration between labor and immigration groups. A 1992 strike that pitted California drywallers -- mostly Mexican laborers -- against construction contractors, halted the construction of interior walls from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara for nearly a year. After blockading freeways and work sites with car caravans, drywallers gained important union contracts for immigrant workers.

Opponents of illegal immigration claim that naturalization services and civil rights should be reserved for immigrants who follow the proper legal channels, and place emphasis on the distinction between those immigrants who enter the country legally and those who don't. "Who would be against immigrant rights?" asked James M. Staudenraus, Eastern Field Coordinator for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). "There are enormous differences between the rights of a legal immigrant, who is here with our country's permission, and people who are here in violation of federal immigration law."

Dave Rey, associate director of FAIR, called the equation of civil rights with the rights of immigrant workers "ludicrous". "Civil rights have nothing to do with the opening up of our borders," he said. "They are riding on the coattails of a completely different movement."

Many of the original Freedom Riders, however, disagree. "We may have come over on different ships but we're all in the same damn boat now," longtime civil rights leader Rev. Richard Lowery told the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

Lehman University's Culvert said that the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride would likely draw even more support than the Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement.

"The second Freedom Ride, I think, will receive more attention than the first one, because changes in technology make it possible to reach a much wider audience," said Culvert. "The world is not as big as it used to be."

Robert Nolan is online editor of the Foreign Policy Association .

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