In 1961, 19-year-old Ruby Doris Smith arrived in Rock Hill, South Carolina, fully expecting the violent racist fury that awaited her and the other black students on her bus. At the time, the term “Freedom Ride” had not yet come into use. But everyone, including the menacing white thugs in the bus station, understood that these young people had come to challenge the oppressive state segregation laws that had been struck down, at least on paper, by the US Supreme Court. So prepared for danger were the riders that some had given sealed letters to friends to mail in case they were killed.
I’m thinking of Ruby Doris Smith as I roll down Highway 80 in the brilliant Nevada sunshine, an Afghan homecare worker on my right, a Chinese hotel housekeeper on my left, an African-American custodian in the seat ahead. Each of these women has taken her seat on the bus as part of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride (IWFR) of 2003. Although theirs is far from the same world confronted by Ruby Doris four decades ago, the powerful moral example of the original riders emboldens them all.
The IWFR sprang from the imagination of organized labor, which has recognized that its future depends on recruiting new immigrant members. The IWFR’s ambitious five-point agenda reflects the demands of a diverse immigrant constituency: a new legalization process for undocumented workers, an accessible “path to citizenship,” a commitment to family reunification for immigrants waiting for relatives abroad, extension of labor protections to all workers and strengthening of civil rights and liberties to insure equal treatment of immigrants. For two weeks, buses from ten cities–Seattle, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Boston and Portland, Oregon–hit the road, bound for Washington, DC, then a rally in Flushing Meadows, Queens, on October 4, where the crowd surged to 100,000, according to organizers.
It’s 6 pm on September 23 when my bus pulls up to a local park in Reno, where hundreds of Latino families have gathered to welcome the riders with a barbecue and soccer tournament. The event’s speakers include Raul, a Mexican day laborer from San Jose, who describes the harassment of immigrants whose only crime is “looking for work,” and Maria, a hotel employee who has not seen her children in El Salvador for fourteen years.
Bob Fulkerson, the fair-haired director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, is elated by the turnout. “In Reno, nothing has ever happened on this scale. Around here the Department of Motor Vehicles will call in the INS when people go to register their car.”
In my nine hours on the IWFR bus, I heard a diverse range of stories from the riders, underscoring the breadth of their needs and interests. Many are union members. Most are foreign-born, representing the whole spectrum of immigration status categories, from those without any documents to legal residents to fully naturalized citizens. Olia tells me about how she fled Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power, leaving behind three children. “I never forget,” she says, carefully crafting a sentence in English. “I do job eighteen hours every day and save all my money. After four years, my children come.”
Or Helen, who speaks to me through an interpreter, and tells of migrating from Hong Kong to take a job as a seamstress in a sweatshop where she “couldn’t even make minimum wage.” Now she works at the San Francisco Marriott, where she helped lead her Chinese, Latino and Filipino co-workers through a successful six-year union contract fight.