Immigrant rights caravan
on the road across the U.S.
Thousands send off buses for
Freedom Ride in California, other states
September 20 rally of 1,000 at Los Angeles City hall to send of buses for Freedom Ride.
BY BETSEY STONE
AND OLGA RODRIGUEZ
LOS ANGELESMore 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 (Were here and were 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 participated.
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 drivers 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 Departments 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-CIOs longstanding position of backing the U.S. governments anti-immigrant policies.
An estimated 10 million workers in this countrythe exact figure is hard to determinelack 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 protection.
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. Were not quiet any more, she said. Were speaking up, even yelling, moving ahead!
Organizers of the cross-country caravan have evoked the traditions of the Freedom Rides that mobilized Black rights fighters in the early 1960s.
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 womens 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.
Defend the rights of immigrants