Nobody Can Turn Us Around
Growing up in the Chicago area, Alheli never realized there was anything different about her. It wasn't until she was a high school student, wanting to get a driver's license and thinking about attending an Ivy League university, that she learned the term she and millions of other residents like her are branded with -- "illegal."
Alheli had come to the U.S. with her family from Mexico City when she was nine years old. Her parents told her they were coming for a two-week visit to her aunt, but they never left. She assimilated to life in the U.S. easily and became one of the top students in her school.
"I grew up here, went to grammar school here, high school here, I had the best grades in my class," said Alheli, now 20. "It never crossed my mind what my situation was until I was a senior in high school and I wanted to go to one of the best universities, but I couldn't get scholarships or financial aid because I'm undocumented. I started feeling embarrassed, like I did something wrong. I was angry, depressed and mad at the world. I couldn't get a drivers license, couldn't get a state ID. My parents had never talked about this, it was part of their culture not to and they were afraid."
Through friends Alheli eventually got involved in immigrants rights activism with a local group called the Southwest Organizing Project. "Then I saw there were all these other people just like me," she said. "That was a real eye opener because I had thought I was the only one in this situation. That was a real turning point in my anger and depression."
For two weeks this fall, Alehi and thousands of other immigrants rode on buses across the country as a call to end the fear, shame and uncertainty that the approximately eight million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. live with everyday. The event was called The Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides, in reference to the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights movement, which had the similar goals of calling for dignity and respect and ending racism, oppression, and exploitation. Riders of all races, including some of the members of the original Freedom Rides, joined immigrants from all over the world on the buses. The children of immigrants and immigrants who are now citizens or legal residents joined undocumented riders to bring home the point that this is a land of immigrants and everyone who works and lives here should be entitled to the same rights and dignity.
The last week of September, 18 buses holding close to 1,000 people took off from 10 cities including Seattle, L.A., Tucson and Chicago,. They wound their way across the country holding rallies and meeting with immigrant communities in a total of 100 different cities and towns. They rallied at immigration detention centers, joined demonstrations for specific labor struggles and spoke at colleges and health clinics.
The riders came up with several themes of the trip: "reward work," meaning legalize all undocumented workers; "renew our democracy," meaning create a viable path to citizenship for immigrants; "restore labor protections," to give immigrants workers regardless of status labor protections including the right to unionize; "reunite families" by reforming immigration policies that make it extremely time-consuming or sometimes impossible for family members to join immigrants in the U.S.; and "respect the civil rights and civil liberties of all."
"It was very exciting," said Jessie Bhangoo, 37, a Sikh native of India who lives in Tucson. "There was a lot of support in the cities, we heard from a lot of people who said it was the first time anyone had ever done an event about immigration reform there. Some immigrants were afraid to come out in public, but the organizers would get calls afterwards. That reception meant a lot to us."
The two buses leaving from Tucson got a first hand view of the constant fear and uncertainty that immigrants live in, as they were detained by Border Patrol agents near El Paso, Texas while going through an immigration checkpoint. The agents held riders on the bus for several hours and then placed them in cells in the immigration detention center. The riders were finally allowed to go, thanks largely to intervention from concerned citizens and politicians.
"That's something very difficult for people who haven't dealt with it to comprehend," said Bhangoo. "For a lot of people it was really surprising, for others it was something they live with every day. For several hours we just had to sit there and we couldn't get up to get water or go to the bathroom. People who had to take medication couldn't take it. That sort of built up the tension. But once people were inside the cells people felt better, they felt they were supporting each other."
The buses converged in Washington D.C. on Oct. 1 for a few days of lobbying and rallies. Demonstrators called for the passage of a bill which would grant legal status to immigrant farmworkers, and for the passage of the DREAM Act and the Student Adjustment Act, which would allow undocumented students to get financial aid for higher education and give legal residency to students who graduate from high school in the U.S. and have lived here for at least five years. Alheli was among a group that met with legislative staff to request the passage of the DREAM and Student Adjustment Acts.
She said her group's experience trying to meet with Illinois Republican Congressman John Shimkus was a lesson in both the difficulty of getting one's voice heard in the political arena and the power of grassroots action.
"We kind of hated him from the beginning because he's one of those very anti-immigrant politicians," she said. "We had gotten a meeting with him and confirmed it and everything, but in the end he didn't meet with us, they said he had to take a plane home or something. So we sat down with his chief of staff, and at first he was very defensive. But then we started talking about our personal stories, and his attitude totally changed. He started saying, 'I didn't know all this was happening, I'll have Shimkus call you within 24 hours.' Of course Shimkus didn't call us, but then one of the organizers got a call to say Shimkiss had signed on to the DREAM Act. I started jumping up and down and screaming, I couldn't believe it."
The bus Alheli was on also stopped at a deportation center in southern Illinois. "That was really nerve-wracking," said Alheli, who is going to community college while waiting for the chance to go to the University of Illinois. "But after that we were able to come out with our heads held up high. We could say we had just been in the wolf's mouth."
"[Immigrants] are in these small towns and their voices aren't really heard because they're undocumented," said Mark Joseph, 17, a member of a Chicago group called the Multicultural Youth Project. "It was really great to hear what they're going through, and tell them we're behind them 100 percent."
Joseph was one of a number of U.S. citizens who participated in the rides.
"I have a lot of friends who are undocumented and they tell me how things are gong in there lives," he said. "Even though I'm not affected by this directly, I still am affected. Their problems are my problems."
The rides had gotten some criticism, largely from anti-immigrant groups or pundits, for appropriating a symbol of the Civil Rights movement. "First they take your jobs, now they're taking your heritage was one of the statements heard from anti-immigrant forces trying to feed dissent between African-American and immigrant workers. But at a Sept. 30 rally at Johnson C. Smith University, a black Presbyterian college in Charlotte, North Carolina, participants said the level of solidarity between African-Americans and immigrants was high.
"The local community really got involved and pushed the event," said organizer Michael Cooper, the assistant director of operations for the group Grassroots Leadership. "One of the original organizers of the Freedom Rides was there and shared his impressions of the start of the Civil Rights movement, and people were just crying. I was speaking to people on my job who clean offices, and some of them didn't agree with it. Some of them said we have our own problems, why are we supporting this. But if you really look at the history of immigration and why immigrants come to the U.S. today, you see they're just looking for a better way to support their families."
To finish off the event the riders met in New York on Oct. 4 along with thousands of local supporters for a celebratory rally. In all about 100,000 people gathered in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens
"Forty-two years later, the freedom riders of 2003, you are going to win," Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an organizer of the original Freedom Rides, told the crowd. "We are one people, we are one family, we are one house and we are not going to let anybody turn us around."
Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org