Rallies Across the Country Greet Immigrant Worker Freedom Riders

Close to 1,000 Freedom Riders set off from ten cities across the country to converge on Washington, D.C. on October 2 and Queens, New York on October 4 to demand an end to the abuse heaped on immigrants. Tens of thousands of union and community members rallied for the grand finale.

Along the way, the buses took their message to more than 100 towns and cities across the nation, holding public forums, chanting loudly, marching, and rallying for immigrant rights, while at the same time drawing attention to local union causes.

The buses from Chicago alone drew attention to the struggles of operating engineers in Buffalo, sheet-metal workers in Syracuse, asbestos workers and parking attendants in D.C., janitors in New Jersey, and hotel workers in New York.

AFRICAN-AMERICANS

One significant accomplishment of the Freedom Rides was that it brought African-American and immigrant communities closer together, especially in the South. Atlanta had the largest single rally greeting the Freedom Riders-some 5,000 strong-and hundreds more showed support in Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee.

In Durham, the Freedom Riders were welcomed by 350 community members at the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, an African-American-owned business since 1898.

According to Theresa El-Amin of the Southern Anti-Racism Network, “Every M.L.K. day we show up there: no planning, no word put out, we just show up. We decided to choose that place to make the link between our struggles.”

Durham’s mayor read a resolution in support of immigrant rights. El-Amin said: “It pledged that city workers would not be used as INS agents, meaning housing inspectors, police, others would not question people about their immigrant status while delivering city services.”

The African-American mayors of Toledo, Ohio, Rochester, New York, and Washington, D.C. also greeted the riders, and presented resolutions in support of immigrants.

This show of unity was not a one-way street. The Portland and Seattle buses cancelled a scheduled stop in Cincinnati to honor an African-American civil rights boycott of that city’s downtown, in place following riots in 2001.

Dan Rathford, Secretary-Treasurer of the Cincinnati Central Labor Council, had set the Freedom Riders up to stay at a downtown hotel. When questioned, he gave riders a choice: either break the boycott or don’t come at all. The buses went to Columbus instead.

According to Sherry Baron, an organizer for Cincinnati Progressive Action: “This was a major victory, bringing together the African-American and immigrant communities, showing people have a lot in common and are willing to stick up for one another. Because of this, meetings that wouldn’t have been possible before will now be possible.”

WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS

A second significant outcome of the Freedom Rides was that it got many more unions on board.

The most striking example of union leaders who had opposed immigrant rights being brought on board the Freedom Rides was in Buffalo, where Jobs with Justice convinced Dan Boody, president of the Building Trades and Area Labor Federations, to greet the Freedom Riders and pledge support for the struggle of immigrants.

The Buffalo Building Trades have organized raids against undocumented workers in the past, and their web-site still includes an “Illegal Immigrant Tipline.”

Besides the building trades, American Federation of Teachers members greeted and hosted the Freedom Riders in cities across the country. At the Toledo rally they were one of the main contingents, after the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

In Cleveland, Freedom Riders were greeted by a large contingent from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 880. The union organized a busload of folks from Dover and Kidron, small towns in Ohio, to greet the Freedom Riders. The Kidron contingent included many Guatemalan workers from Gerber, an Amish poultry plant the UFCW is organizing.

TAKING RISKS

The most dramatic moment for the Freedom Rides happened when two buses from Los Angeles were stopped at an immigration checkpoint near El Paso.

The Freedom Riders were well prepared for any questions by Immigration. All carried a special badge listing their name, picture, and originating city. The badge included a card making clear that no rider would say or sign anything without first speaking with an attorney.

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If for any reason a bus was detained, all the riders pledged to give no information and present only this ID. That way, if there were any undocumented riders, they would be protected by everyone’s nonviolent resistance.

According to Maria Elena Durazo, Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) vice president and Freedom Ride coordinator: “In El Paso, we were detained by Border Patrol and learned the power of nonviolence. They stopped us, took us down, separated us, interrogated us, tried to pin us against each other.

“The only words that came out of our mouths for four hours non-stop: ‘We shall overcome’ We could hear it from room to room and it gave us great strength.”

After four hours of rapid response and negotiations with the office of Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, with calls and media pouring in from across the country, the riders were released.

The Chicago buses included two women facing deportation proceedings, Elvira Arellano and Julieta Bolivar. Their children, all U.S. citizens, were also on the bus.

Arellano had cleaned airplanes for years before the FBI arrested her under Operation Tarmac. A Pennsylvania state trooper arrested Bolivar when one of her tires blew out on the way to a Day Laborer Conference-instead of offering help, the police asked everyone for proof of citizenship.

Several other Freedom Riders were fired after their employers received “no-match letters,” sent by the Social Security Administration when an employee name does not match a number in their database.

Although the letter states that it is not cause for termination, many employers use them to fire troublemakers and workers with high seniority.

In D.C., when Chicago Congressman Luis Gutierrez spoke, the Freedom Ride children from his district joined him, illustrating dramatically the impact immigration policy has on many families, and the principle of family unification.

VISIBILITY

The Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides were most successful when facing down risks, speaking out as undocumented workers in public forums, or keeping silent when interrogated by Immigration.

Durazo, speaking in D.C., gave homage to the original Freedom Riders, whose struggle paved the way for the Freedom Rides today:

“Never, ever forget the struggle of African-Americans. They suffered hundreds of beatings, and now we believe civil rights are for everybody and no population should be excluded, otherwise you can’t call this a land of opportunity and freedom.”

Newspapers large and small covered the Freedom Rides extensively, but they did not receive as much television publicity as organizers had hoped, and none of the Democratic presidential candidates took a stand on the issue during the Rides, as some of the organizers for HERE had expected.

Some speakers pushed Gutierrez’ legalization bill, HR 400; others pushed the DREAM Act that would allow immigrant students to continue on to college, or driver’s license bills. In Toledo, the event revolved solidly around the FREEDOM Act, a legalization proposal supported by the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty.

On the local level, immigrant rights coalitions were born or strengthened in Arizona, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and other states and cities across the country.

In Illinois, groups that organized the Freedom Rides, including Pueblo Sin Fronteras, ACORN, SEIU, and HERE, are mobilizing to pass a bill allowing immigrants to get driver’s licenses without a Social Security number, including plans for a freedom ride tour to convince communities across the state to get on board with the initiative.

Teofilo Reyes was a Freedom Rider on the Sin Fronteras bus from Chicago. Their story can be found online at http://vivosvoco.blogspot.com With help from N. Renuka Uthappa.