IT WOULD BE natural to assume that the "Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride" getting on the road Tuesday, Sept. 23, is an outgrowth of the country's questionable treatment of immigrants in the aftermath of 9/11treatment that has included the special registration, detention, and deportation of many innocent immigrants. In fact, though, the idea for the cross-country bus rideoriginating in 10 cities including Seattlesurfaced at a union meeting in July of 2001, two months before the Twin Towers attack. While the post-9/11 plight of immigrants has added crucial momentum to a project that has assumed a grand scale, with riders en route to Washington, D.C., and New York and encompassing events in almost 100 cities, the bus ride is the byproduct of a more complex set of issues.
In the first place, it would not be happening were it not for the changing relationship between immigrants and the labor movement. David Koff, the Washington, D.C.- based communications director for a coalition of immigrant and labor groups that is organizing the ride, notes that it was first suggested at the 2001 annual convention of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union in Los Angeles. The backdrop to that suggestion was a historic switch in the AFL-CIO's policy toward immigrants that had happened the year before. Previously leaning toward protectionism, the AFL-CIO had supported the government's efforts to crack down on illegal immigrants through employer sanctions. But the AFL-CIO did a 180-degree turn, in part due to a union base ever more reliant on the service economy and the immigrants it employs.
The bus ride is a showy manifestation of big labor's new backing of immigrants and an example of what can happen when, as Koff puts it, "the power and scale and organizing capacity of the labor movement" gets into the picture. Modeled on the civil rights Freedom Rides of the 1960s, it is a 12-day event that will have some 800 riders from various cities following different routes and stopping at different points along the way for rallies, marches, and meetings that draw in locals from all those cities. At the end, two big rallies will take place in Washington, D.C., and the immigrant hot spot of Flushing, Queens, in New York City. Organizers have hired filmmakers to be on board each set of buses to document the ride. They have also enlisted lawyers to ride along should legal problems or harassment arise. And they have racked up a list of endorsements from countless community organizations, religious groups, and elected officials, including the Seattle City Council, the Metropolitan King County Council, and Mayor Greg Nickels. Significantly, given the comparison to the original Freedom Rides organizers are drawing, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has also granted its blessing, and several of the original civil rights Freedom Riders are either helping organize the ride or will be on a bus.
THE AIMS OF THIS Freedom Ride are, however, a little harder to decipher than those of the original, which strove to dismantle the laws of racial segregation. The promotional material talks about four broad themes: the path to citizenship, reunification of family, civil rights, and justice on the job. In talking to organizers and riders, though, it's clear that most of the themes relate to the question of undocumented immigrants. Backers of the ride point to how illegal immigrants are denied a chance for citizenship, can't go home to see their families without risking the possibility of not being able to return, and are subject to workplace intimidation and denial of benefits like Social Security because of their status. "We want an immigration policy that rewards work by granting legal status to immigrants who are here, who are working and paying taxes, and who at the same time are forced by immigration laws to live in the shadows and in fear," affirms Koff.
Yet unlike racial segregation, the issue of legalization is not morally clear-cut and is complicated in practical terms. Are we talking about blanket amnesty and open bordersand if so, is that feasible in a country that would be flooded with newcomers should no immigration restrictions apply? (Never mind the security issues 9/11 has brought home.) Organizers say the ride is not meant to promote specific policies, so it's hard to know exactly what ideas we're supposed to wrestle with. But it's certainly valuable to open up a debate around legalization. With our borders remaining porous no matter how many guards we put on them and with millions of illegal immigrants already here and undergirding our economy, experts on the right and left agree that the country's immigration system is broken. (see "The New Border War," Sept. 10.)
If it doesn't offer solutions to the problem, the Freedom Ride will humanize it. Harking back to the rides of the 1960s, Liza Wilcox, an organizer of the ride in Seattle who works for the immigrant-rights group Hate Free Zone, says: "It really is true that the injustice of segregation wasn't exposed until the Freedom Ride. It didn't become real for people until they heard personal stories." Wilcox says this era's riders will tell their stories at the many stops along the way.
ABOUT 50 PEOPLE will travel on one bus from Seattle on a route that will take them past the fields of Eastern Washington, over the Rockies, through the heartland of Ohio, then on to the East Coast. The riders include a large group from Mexico as well as immigrants from Somalia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Lebanon, India, and elsewhere. Mexican native Octavio Guerrero is one rider. Now an American citizen working for a distributor of Mexican imports, the 33-year-old says he knows what it's like to be an immigrant always watching your back. Although he long has had a connection with the United Stateshis father was a "guest" farm worker while he and the rest of the family stayed in Mexicohe lived in California illegally for several years before obtaining legal papers derived from his father's status. There was a crackdown on illegal immigrants in California at the time, Guerrero says, and raids were occurring at homes and workplaces. "It's not an easy thing to live with," he says. "You don't have peace of mind even in your own home."
Another Seattle rider, Jamaican-born Maria Ricketts (not her real name), tells a story that suggests a possible netherworld of the nanny industry that lures immigrants to the U.S. Coming from a childhood of devastating hardshipsher mother was so poor that she was forced to abandon most of her 10 children to orphanagesshe was scraping by as a baby-sitter in a Jamaican hotel when a friend got her in touch with a couple from Connecticut looking for a nanny. According to Ricketts, the couple promised her a comfortable existence, including her own room, and help in obtaining legal status. When she jumped at the chance, they sent her a ticket to the U.S. But when she arrived, she was relegated to an unheated corner of the basement used as a play area for the couple's four kids; she slept on a couch. Then the couple told her she'd have to work off her airfare to the U.S.; they paid her a dismal $96 a week. No help on her legal status was forthcoming.
Ricketts, who ran away after four months, is now 26 and the mother of a 5-month-old she is taking with her on the Freedom Ride. Her life has taken many twists and turns since she ran. She married an American who she says abused her but whom she was afraid to leave for fear he would use her status against her. She finally did leave, however, and bought a bus ticket to the furthermost point she could think of: Seattle. Here, lawyers helped her obtain legal papers, and she has worked to send money home to her mother, whom she hasn't seen in almost eight years in large part because of her long unresolved status.
For Ricketts, the Freedom Ride represents a coming out of the shadows. "I want to be heard," she says, sounding flush with newfound liberation. "I'm tired of the intimidation side of it." Her message, she says: "I'm here and I'm going to stay here."
A send-off day of events will culminate in a rally at the Seattle Center International Fountain, 1:30 p.m. Sat., Sept. 20. For more information, call 206-723-2203, ext. 250.