Let Freedom Roll
Rodriguez knew that under the Patriot Act the riders--regardless of their place of birth or immigration status--could have been detained if the government had somehow deemed their mission subversive. "The Patriot Act took policies that have long been used against immigrants," says Rodriguez, "and expanded them to citizens." According to Isabel Garcia, director of the Pima County Legal Defender's Office and a Coalition for Human Rights board member, "In theory, taking action against the riders would have required showing some basis for suspicion. But, if we had been under some elevated 'terrorist alert,' a whole other scenario would certainly have been possible."
To the riders' surprise, after four hours they were let go. "We found out later that people were flooding the Border Patrol with phone calls and faxes," Rodriguez explains. "People even contacted the Department of Homeland Security and the President. Unlike with the 147 migrants who have died at the US-Mexico border this year, we knew the whole world was watching our bus."
This tug of war between fear and determination to fight reminds me of Nabil, the 23-year-old son of Indian immigrants, with whom I rode to Reno. Nabil is a volunteer with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who asked him to represent them on the IWFR. "I have friends who say, 'Being a young Muslim male you should avoid getting into political issues.' They say, 'You're putting yourself in jeopardy of being profiled by the government in the future.' It's a real possibility."
Very real. In fact, since 9/11, more than 83,000 Arab, Middle Eastern and Asian men have voluntarily complied with new "Special Registration" requirements that include fingerprinting and monitoring. This past June the federal government quietly began taking action to seek deportation of 13,000 of these men, none of whom had been found to have terrorist ties. Mohamed Nimer, research director at CAIR, describes "a climate of fear and apprehension" among Arabs and Muslims, "where people don't know who is going to be next. We're seeing search and seizure tactics targeting people who don't fully agree with government policy."
At the core of the IWFR is an evolving and sometimes rocky relationship between organized labor and the broader immigrant rights community, which have strong common interests but also some different priorities. For example, unions would surely go to the mat for repeal of laws sanctioning employers for hiring undocumented workers, and are likely to oppose any kind of temporary guest worker program. Immigrant rights groups, however, might see demilitarization of the border or access to higher education as the first order of business, and might be open to some forms of temporary work if accompanied by significant rights and protections. "These relationships are being made up as we go along," observes Cecilia Muñoz. "You have to remember that the AFL has only been on the right side of the issue for three years," she says, referring to the labor federation's February 2000 decision to actively support the rights of undocumented workers. "It's amazing progress," Muñoz concludes. "But there are growing pains."
Those growing pains are being felt in Nevada, as Bob Fulkerson attests. "Here in Reno, labor has been willing to work in coalition, to make shared decisions. But labor is still the 800-pound gorilla in the room. They're the most powerful political entity around. They've got 50,000 members. They do mailings in five languages. But there's not one immigrant rights group in the whole state." Nonetheless, a labor/immigrant rights alliance makes strategic sense. "The immigrant rights movement has been doing heroic work on nothing but fumes," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "A real commitment from labor is like putting a turbocharged engine on a canoe."
But, Sharry cautions, the IWFR should not count on sweeping legislative changes in the short term. "The only things that have a real chance of passing in 2004 are the 'Dream Act' and the farmworker deal. One is legalization for college kids and the other is legalization for a sector of farmworkers."
Chung-Wha Hong, advocacy director for the New York Immigration Coalition, is braced for storms ahead. Hong points out that while bipartisan support exists for some form of legalization, "Republicans are going to want to exchange it for more enforcement--along the lines of a national ID card." Hong admits, "Since the IWFR doesn't have a specific legislative agenda, there have been times when we've wondered, 'What are we really supporting?' But the whole point is to create a new political environment, to build new relationships and an infrastructure for when there is legislation." As Sharry notes, "The collective goal is really about building a movement that succeeds no matter who is President in 2005." Ultimately, the IWFR is less about legislative politics than about envisioning an ideal of justice and compelling the public to recognize it. In the words of former Freedom Rider and Congressional Black Caucus member John Lewis, "The most important purpose of this ride is to establish a coalition of conscience."