Let Freedom Roll
The vast diversity of today's immigrants further complicates the picture. It's no small task to forge a political identity among Haitians in Miami, Arabs in Chicago, Mexicans in Atlanta and Vietnamese in San Jose. To satisfy so many constituencies, the IWFR agenda needed to respond to a variety of concerns, with legalization topping Latinos' list of priorities and family reunification dominant among Asians' worries.
In the IWFR, as its name would suggest, the unifying experience emphasized is that of workers, though the riders describe a struggle for both economic and racial justice. "In the eyes of the dominant white culture and the federal government," asserts observer Arnoldo Garcia of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, "'immigrant' has become a racialized category. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride is a complex call for a new civil rights charter that includes the foreign-born."
Employers are often the frontline enemy in this racialized reality. In the 1960s, and throughout US history, employers have used racial and ethnic differences to divide workers and weaken their organizing. Today, as Doretha and others confirm, the strategy is still the same, though new tactics are emerging. "Employers try to separate people," she says, "like we don't have a common issue."
In recent years, the arsenal available to employers aiming to exploit divisions among workers has been expanding. For example, in its Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB decision last year, the Supreme Court found that José Castro, an undocumented worker illegally fired for his union organizing activities, could not receive back pay because he was unauthorized to work. While the ruling itself was quite narrow, its impact has been broad. According to a recent report by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Employment Law Project, "It has encouraged unscrupulous employers to engage in retaliation against unauthorized workers who claim violations of their workplace rights, and to make more claims that these workers are unprotected by any labor laws. This in turn has a chilling effect on workers' enforcement of their remaining workplace rights." In other words, employers are seizing on the ruling as a way to undermine worker unity by isolating and threatening undocumented employees engaged in union activity.
Standing at the front of a bus in Richmond, Virginia, the president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), John Wilhelm, tackled this issue head-on. "The Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides are telling this country that we're not going to fall for divide and conquer anymore," proclaimed Wilhelm to the busload of riders. "We will not be divided by the color of our skin, nor by what country we come from, nor by the first language we learned. We will not be divided into who the US government says is 'illegal' and who the US government says is 'legal.'" Listening to the rally over a cell phone, I hear the riders cheering wildly. "No human being is 'illegal!'" shouts Wilhelm, the riders breaking into thunderous applause.
Of all the differences between 1961 and now, the most striking is the relationship of the federal government to the riders. Then, federal law was on the side of the Freedom Riders as they set out to dismantle Southern Jim Crow laws. But today, US law is part of the problem. According to Cecilia Muñoz of the National Council of La Raza, "The people on the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride are taking very serious risks. Under the current legal regime, the attack could come from the federal government."
Those fears were fulfilled all too vividly in Sierra Blanca, Texas, when two IWFR buses were stopped at an INS checkpoint. Speaking via cell phone, Kat Rodriguez tells me how the Border Patrol boarded the buses, asking everyone, "Are you a US citizen?" After each rider presented cards asserting their right to remain silent, the Border Patrol ordered the riders to leave the bus one at a time. As they descended, loudly singing "We Shall Overcome," Rodriguez could see "cars with blond Anglos getting waved through without even being stopped."
"I was afraid," says Rodriguez, who works for the Coalition for Human Rights/Indigenous Alliance Without Borders, in Tucson, Arizona. "When one of the Border Patrol agents pointed to me and said, 'Take this one too!' I didn't know if they were going to bus some of us to a detention center." Instead, the riders were divided into groups and locked into 9 by 10 rooms where, despite Border Patrol claims to the contrary, no one received water or food.