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A New Kind of Freedom Ride
S everal busloads of citizens, resident aliens, and undocumented workers departed from ten U.S. cities on September 26, making stops in over 100 more communities to converge on Washington, DC, before finally ending at a rally in New York City on October 4. This Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride (IWFR), organized to educate citizens along the way and focus attention on the plight of undocumented workers in the U.S., drew many unlikely participants. Vicki Harris, a U.S. citizen, is black, a union member, and works in the hotel industry—where for decades undocumented immigrants have displaced black union workers and driven wages down.
But despite any reasons Harris and other citizen workers might have had to resent the undocumented workers, when law enforcement authorities near the Canadian border at Buffalo, New York stopped Harris’s bus, the immigrants on the bus were her first thought. “We were praying for them, because they’re undocumented,” Harris says.
No one was detained in the end, in Buffalo or at another harrowing stop along the U.S.-Mexican border. But scares like this were enough to sensitize many citizens among the riders who, like Harris, had climbed aboard to show support for their unions, without much knowledge of what their undocumented coworkers face.
After a few days and nights on the bus, Harris says she discovered a new, cross-cultural family and a side of herself she hadn’t known existed. “You’re thinking you’re in pretty bad shape,” she says, “until you meet somebody worse off. It brings tears to your eyes.” She says she found that she likes helping people and, “If you stick together, you can accomplish something.”
T he citizen participants on the week-and-a-half Freedom Ride learned more about immigrant workers than the anxiety of possible deportation, and they spread the news as they went. Some buses visited company towns populated overwhelmingly by immigrant labor and migrant labor camps where farmworkers who pick the nation’s fruit are sequestered nightly. Under the best of circumstances federal minimum wage and other labor standards do not cover farmworkers. For immigrant workers the best circumstances are all but unknown.
Last year, three citrus growers in Florida were convicted of federal slavery charges after the Coalition of Immokalee Workers exposed violent conditions in local fields and orchards. Many field hands work in intense heat with no access to toilets or drinking water. Employers have subjected workers to beatings, threats, extortion, and whole camps are locked up at night to prevent anyone entering or leaving. Federal authorities have documented employers holding workers at gun- point in the fields.
Other stops on the Freedom Ride included university towns where children of undocumented workers must pay out-of-state tuition, no matter how long they have lived in-state. One of the four Chicago buses, organized by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), made a stop at a private for-profit immigrant detention center in Ullin, Illinois, just outside Carbondale.
Freedom Riders learned that the economic prognosis was so bad in Ullin a few years ago that the town’s political leaders agreed to a deal with the Immigration and Naturalization Service for a federally funded immigrant detention center, which doubles as the county jail. Most of the detainees in Ullin are from Chicago, six hours away, and family members face serious obstacles to visiting loved ones detained in the tiny town.
One side effect of the detention center in Ullin, the Freedom Riders discovered, is that a number of people in this small town in southern Illinois have now learned, through direct contact they would not have otherwise had, that “illegal aliens” are not the inhuman vermin depicted by anti-immigrant lobbies. One local official was even willing to express a certain ambivalence about his role. The State Attorney in Ullin applauded the Freedom Ride. According to ICIRR’s executive director Joshua Hoyt: “He told us, I think what you’re doing is great. These are nice people, not criminals. We wish everyone here was as nice as these detainees, because we’d be out of a job.”
the purpose of the Freedom Ride was also to challenge U.S. immigration
policy, not just feel bad about it, and that meant taking some risks,
especially for the undocumented riders. “We went inside the
detention center,” says Demian Kogan, a student volunteer organizer
for ICIRR. “We couldn’t see the cells—they call them
pods—or meet with the detainees, but there were 45 of us and
some were undocumented. It was very symbolic, very powerful.”
About the same time on the other side of the country, border guards were stopping one IWFR bus along the U.S.-Mexican border, demanding papers. But when citizens, resident aliens, and undocumented Riders all refused to present documents in solidarity, the guards eventually backed down.
T he Freedom Ride represents a sea change in organized labor. For many years the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL- CIO) fought for more restrictions on immigration and against immigrant workers’ rights. The theory was that new immigrants served as competition for citizen workers, dragging down hard-won wages and benefits, so immigration had to be stopped.
The United Farm Workers did not belong to the AFL-CIO when its overwhelmingly immigrant membership first challenged conditions in the fields and growers were able to hire Teamsters to assault UFW pickets.
Yet some AFL-CIO unions —Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), Service Employees, United Needletrades Industries and Textile Employees (UNITE), United Food and Commercial Workers and the Laborers Union—took a different tactic. They organized the immigrants into their unions and fought hard to raise the living standards of all their members. These unions argued that if labor improves the working conditions of the worst off then no one can drop below that improved level. Eventually, in February 2000, the AFL-CIO reversed its longstanding policy and em- braced immigrant workers’ rights.
By then the farmworkers had joined the AFL-CIO and farm- workers’ cofounder Linda Chavez- Thompson had been elected AFL-CIO vice president. The student anti-sweatshop movement was in full swing as UNITE worked with student activists on energetic campaigns against sweatshop employers Guess, Nike, and the Gap, among others, building visionary student-labor coalitions in the process. New farmworkers unions had sprung up around the country and gained popular support for corporate campaigns involving boycotts.
The 1996 campaign by Pineros y Campesinos Unidos Noroeste against the makers of vegetarian Gardenburger was the first such boycott for a generation of students too young to remember Cesar Chavez and the “No uvas” grape boycott. In the last two years, the tomato pickers’ fight against fast food giant Taco Bell has been inspiring college students around the country to “Boot the Bell” off their campuses.
Many of the Freedom Riders— citizens, green card holders, and undocumented workers alike—describe a sense of being “part of a movement” beyond a simple campaign with a five-point agenda. This impression was likely due at least in part to the exuberant reception that the buses received in many towns along the route. One march outside Atlanta grew unexpectedly from 2,000 to over 5,000, as local workers and students dropped what they were doing to swell the ranks when they heard the Freedom Riders were in town.
N evertheless, some remain unconvinced. As the Freedom Ride began, Local 444 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) published an open letter to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney explaining why they would not support the Freedom Ride.
The letter repeated charges made by anti-immigration groups, deriding the event’s name chosen to honor the original Freedom Riders in the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Those Freedom Riders, the letter said, risked life and limb to stand up for their legal rights, while the new Freedom Riders are demanding rights not yet enshrined in law: the right to qualify for driver licenses without Social Security numbers, in-state tuition for children of undocumented workers, a general amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and a better process for reuniting families. Many legal immigrants must now wait as long as 15 years before they can bring family members to join them in the U.S. These waiting periods are cited by some as a major cause of illegal immigration.
This argument, that the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride somehow tarnished the memory of the earlier Freedom Riders, popped up in editorial pages across the country. The point was always made, incidentally, with conspicuous omission of any reference to the opinions of any actual participant in those legendary Freedom Rides. Several are still around, however. Congressperson John D. Lewis (D-GA), for one, welcomed the buses to DC, telling Freedom Riders, “You have rekindled the spirit of justice in this country.” He also rode one of the buses part of the way.
The AFSCME letter also blamed the AFL-CIO for recent job losses and accused the labor federation of neglecting its responsibilities to fight for “American workers,” arguing that, in the current context, the Freedom Ride means more workers competing for scarcer and meaner jobs.
But according to David Koff, a staffer on loan to the IWFR from HERE, this jobs-competition argument is flat wrong. He says the issue is not “open borders or closed borders” but “smart borders.”
“The fact is,” says Koff, “they are here and they will continue to come. The U.S., like every other industrialized nation, is dependent on foreign-born labor to expand its economy.” According to the 1990- 2000 Census, Koff says, foreign- born workers filled nearly half the new jobs created. “There are eight to ten million undocumented people living in the country right now. There can be no more visible sign of the failure of U.S. immigration policy than such a large population of unprotected workers.”
So when organized labor dropped its anti-immigrant policies, says Koff, it was partly in recognition of the fact that “You can’t have a subclass of vulnerable workers who can be deported without holding down the capacity of all workers to improve their lives.” In other words, as workers in this country struggle to improve wages and working conditions, the growing population of undocumented workers “becomes an anchor that holds down the efforts of others.”
“Legalization is essential,” says Koff, “so everyone in the workplace is on an equal footing.”
For Harris and hundreds of others touched by this event, the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride is what the union movement is all about—solidarity.
Ricky Baldwin is a longtime labor activist and writer whose articles have appeared in In These Times, Dollars & Sense, Labor Notes, Z Magazine, Extra!, and elsewhere.
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