Voices from the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride

History is a powerful witness in the lives of nations that captures success and failure; moments of pride and episodes of shame. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, which kicked off Sept. 20, builds on the noble history of the U.S. civil rights movement and efforts to perfect an imperfect democracy. In the 1960s, white and black Freedom Riders boarded busses and headed south to challenge unjust laws that deprived African Americans of their rights and to test the truth of the declaration that we are created equal and endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights. Their determination, courage and sacrifice led to the downfall of segregation in interstate travel and helped topple legal segregation.

Get on the Bus!

Four decades after the first freedom rides, people are back on the buses to continue the struggle for economic and social justice and civil rights for America's most marginalized population -- immigrants. Surprise, America, it's a never-ending tour until we get it right.

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The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, with busses departing from 10 cities, draws attention to the unfinished work of democracy. Riders will converge on Washington, D.C., lobby Congress Oct. 1-2 and close out the mobilization with a huge Oct. 4 rally in New York. Some 8.5 million immigrants are unable to fully participate in American society and are vulnerable to workplace exploitation. One in four low wage workers is an immigrant. They exist in citizenship limbo, subjected to an unresponsive bureaucracy and increased targeting from law enforcement. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride mass mobilization was initiated by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union International, but has won the support of religious groups, immigration activists, national and local politicians and grassroots activists.

Riders who board busses in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Houston and Las Vegas will cross the country, making stops in over 100 cities. They want changes in immigration policy that reward work by granting legal status to hardworking, law-abiding immigrant workers already established in the United States; renew democracy by offering a clear path to citizenship and full political participation for the newest Americans; restore labor protections so that all workers, including immigrant workers, have the right to fair treatment on the job; reunite families by streamlining our outdated immigration policies; and respect the civil rights and civil liberties of all.

Sadly, the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride has also conjured up an ugly side of American history: the scapegoating of immigrants and rejection of our common bonds. Just as racism raised its ugly head as Freedom Riders went through the South, with busses firebombed in Anniston, Ala., and riders beaten in places like Jackson, Miss., white supremacists have surfaced to contest the 2003 Freedom Ride. The challenges are coming from as far south as Texas and as far north as New Jersey, with immigrants blamed for America's social problems and called a drag on the economy.

The truth is far different: A 1997 National Academy of Sciences study found immigrants add about $10 billion to the nation's economy and take far less in government services. They pay millions of dollars in taxes. Immigrants are also more likely to be underpaid for their work and threatened by employers for any mention of unfairness on the job or interest in union membership.

The groups that appeal to the worst part of our national character falsely mischaracterize America as a place by, for and of white Europeans. But those who tout the white badge of acceptance overlook the discrimination, violence and scapegoating faced by the Irish, Italians, Germans, the Polish and Eastern European Jews. None of these immigrant groups was accorded the badge of "whiteness" without paying a painful price. Many of the same lies and stereotypes lobbed at today's immigrants were fired at the immigrants of yesterday.

It is not surprising that the twin stains of racism and xenophobia still blemish our national fabric. There have always been those who appeal to the worst part of us to feed their egos and political schemes. For example, some of these current groups believe that their racist agendas can be hidden inside an anti-immigrant stance that Americans will accept.

There are also signs their analysis is wrong. Polls show Americans are open to fixing the broken immigration system and the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride has drawn support from a broad swath of the religious, labor and community activists. Over 160 religious groups, including affiliates in the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice network, have endorsed the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. African American, Asian American, Latino and immigrant groups have embraced the call to accept the latest class of immigrants.

If their support for the ride is not enough, certainly the opposition of racists says that support of the ride is good thing. For every rejection of racism is an embrace of the best of who we are and the best of our shared heritage as Americans.

Richard Muhammad is communications director for the Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.

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