Fighters for immigrant rights set off on Freedom Ride

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Fri Sep 26 03:29:58 MDT 2003

The Militant   Vol. 67/No. 34 October 6, 2003

Immigrant rights caravan
on the road across the U.S.
Thousands send off buses for
Freedom Ride in California, other states
lead article

LOS ANGELES—More than 1,000 people, the majority of them members of
trade unions, rallied at City Hall here September 20 to demand rights
for immigrant workers. They were sending off a contingent of 140
people from Southern California taking part in the Immigrant Workers
Freedom Ride. Departing from 10 cities across the country, 18 busloads
of “freedom riders” will be converging in Washington, D.C., on October
1 and 2. They will then travel to New York for a large rally on
October 4 in Flushing Meadow Park, Queens.

In addition to the rally in Los Angeles, sendoff events were held the
same weekend in San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.

In San Francisco, some 2,000 unionists held a march and rally. Many of
the demonstrators chanted in Spanish, “Aquí estamos y no nos vamos”
(We’re here and we’re not leaving). Lively contingents of the hotel
workers, longshore, and other unions were prominent in the action.

The rally was addressed by United Farm Workers (UFW) cofounder Dolores
Huerta and other union officials. Among the speakers were several
politicians, including Gov. Gray Davis, who was there to campaign
against the recall vote against him. Also joining the San Francisco
event were campaigners for the Socialist Workers candidate for
governor, Joel Britton. They joined with those protesting deportations
and factory raids, supporting the demand of amnesty for all
immigrants, and backing union struggles that many immigrant workers
have been part of.

At the rally in downtown Los Angeles, several hundred construction
workers from Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties, wearing the
orange T-shirts of the Laborers International Union of North America,
made up one of the largest contingents.

Other sizable groups of unionists included home-care workers, hospital
workers, and janitors who are members of the Service Employees
International Union (SEIU), garment workers from UNITE, and members of
the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE). Members of the
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), California Federation of
Teachers, and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists also

A hotel worker and member of the SEIU, who asked not to be identified
by name, said that her daughter was one of the Freedom Riders. “We
want to get our papers and win the right to be legal. We want
benefits. We want driver’s licenses and we want our children to have a
decent education,” she said.

Legalization of status
Opening the rally, María Elena Durazo, president of HERE Local 11 and
national coordinator of the Freedom Ride, said the demonstrators are
calling on the government to legalize the status of all immigrant
workers, guarantee equal legal protection on the job to all workers
regardless of immigration status, and shorten the long wait for
residency applications.

For U.S. residents who have applied to bring spouses and children to
join them in this country, the waiting list is at least five years,
and seven years for families from Mexico, according to the U.S. State
Department’s “visa bulletin.”

The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO as
well as a number of immigrant rights organizations, Black rights
groups, and elected officials. In a number of cities, unions have
helped organize events to publicize the cross-country caravan.

The proposal for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride was initiated two
years ago by the hotel and restaurant workers union. HERE was part of
the effort that led the AFL-CIO executive board in 2000 to advocate an
amnesty for undocumented workers and the repeal of laws that impose
sanctions on employers who hire these workers. This was a reversal of
the AFL-CIO’s longstanding position of backing the U.S. government’s
anti-immigrant policies.

An estimated 10 million workers in this country—the exact figure is
hard to determine—lack residence papers. The historic wave of
immigration to the United States over the past three decades has had a
big impact on the union movement. Today, there is a substantial
immigrant component in many unions, such as the UFCW, UFW, the garment
and textile workers union UNITE, and the Laborers. Workers seeking to
organize unions have had to confront efforts by the bosses to take
advantage of the existence of a section of workers deprived of legal

The rally in Los Angeles reflected the mood of resistance among layers
of immigrant workers. Olga Ramírez, an asbestos worker, pointed to the
women construction workers in the Laborers contingent. “We’re not
quiet any more,” she said. “We’re speaking up, even yelling, moving

Organizers of the cross-country caravan have evoked the traditions of
the Freedom Rides that mobilized Black rights fighters in the early

One of the featured speakers at the Los Angeles rally was Rev. James
Lawson, Jr., a participant in the l961 freedom ride from Montgomery,
Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, to desegregate public
transportation. Lawson, who is president of the Los Angeles chapter of
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, proclaimed, “We are here
today for the cause of the immigrants and the unions.”

“At the heart of the civil rights movement of the l950s and l960s was
the notion that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice
everywhere,” he said. “The freedom ride is not just about immigrants
but about all peoples.”

The freedom riders going on the buses were greeted with applause as
they marched to the front. Some carried placards with the slogan of
the civil rights movement: “I AM A MAN.” Some of the women’s placards
said: “I AM A WOMAN.”

Renán Armendarez Cuello, host of the popular show “El Cucuy de la
Tarde,” spoke of conditions he witnessed in a nearby garment factory.
“There was no drinking water, the workers had to bring their toilet
paper from home, and it was 110 degrees inside,” he said. “The
buildings here are constructed with the blood and sweat of immigrants
who do not have rights, who want to get them.”

“Can we get them?” he asked. The crowd broke into chants of “Sí se
puede!” (Yes, we can.)

Other speakers included UFW president Arturo Rodríguez, Miguel
Contreras, executive director of the Los Angeles County Federation of
Labor, Joe Hansen of the UFCW, Los Angeles mayor James Hahn, several
members of the state legislature and congress, and representatives of
immigrant rights groups.

Related article:
Defend the rights of immigrants

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