Let Freedom Roll

Let Freedom Roll

Immigrants hit the road for civil rights.


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.

There’s Antonia (not her real name), who hesitates before she explains that she is an undocumented Mexican immigrant and a lesbian. She speaks softly in Spanish about her decision not to maintain a heterosexual facade for immigration officials scrutinizing her marriage to a US citizen. “I had to sacrifice the opportunity for ‘papers,'” she tells me, “because of my sexual identity.”

Then there’s Doretha, who talks energetically about what it’s like to be a black woman and union steward at her predominantly immigrant worksite. “When you have a language barrier or anything they can put over on you, they’ll use it,” says Doretha. “It took me a long time to get it,” she confesses. “The way they treat immigrants is how they treated us in the sixties.”

Who, I wonder, are “they” now?

Of course, there are still traces of the “they” the 1960s Freedom Riders faced: the violent white mobs whose ugliness was captured forever in grainy black-and-white photos. On our bus, I’ve heard talk that white supremacists will be descending on Little Rock, where one of the IWFR buses is set to stop. I’m concerned, but know it’s easy to become preoccupied with isolated flash points, harder to grapple with the insidious structures of racism that mold so much of the daily experience of immigrants and African-Americans.

“The Freedom Rides of the 1960s challenged the racist policies that were central to how the United States functioned,” says Bill Fletcher Jr., who left a top-level job at the AFL-CIO to head the TransAfrica Forum. “Through the civil rights movement we won an end to legal racial segregation. But while the ‘colored only’ signs are gone,” notes Fletcher, “racism has taken a different form. Back then, laws prevented blacks from buying certain homes. Now, it’s that we can’t get a loan, or that a realtor won’t show us the house. The enemy is no longer as clear as when you had a George Wallace standing out there.”

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.

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.”

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy