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Freedom Riding 40 years later for immigrant rights

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Edna Silvester wasn't about to miss the bus for a second time. Forty years ago, when her friends boarded Greyhound buses throughout the American South to test the enforcement of the Supreme Court's anti-segregation ruling, Silvester reluctantly stayed home. She was pregnant, and was well aware of the violence that awaited the Freedom Riders.

Now, the 60-year-old African-American woman is a passenger on the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a modern-day incarnation of that powerful piece of the Civil Rights Movement. Three years after the AFL-CIO did a 180 on its anti-immigrant stance, the nation's central labor organism dreamed up the Freedom Ride as a catalyst for today's labor movement. In late September, I joined nearly 1,000 immigrants and supporters like Silvester for an elaborate immigrant rights kick-off event of massive proportions. In two weeks, the 10 routes visited 104 cities, carrying a call for new immigration and labor policies on our way to lobby in Washington, D.C., and rally 100,000-strong in New York.

When we rode, the police met us with billy clubs, dogs, hoses," Mama D, a friend of Silvester, tells me, tapping my arm from across the aisle as we drive over the Louisiana-Mississippi state line where, 40 years ago, she broke state law riding an integrated bus.

"Now they're escorting us for protection."

As we ride from Houston to New Orleans, to Selma, Atlanta and Durham, retracing the path of the original Freedom Riders, we are greeted with cheers and song, with a warm meal and a warm bed.

But our reception en route is not typical for the immigrants that make up 85 percent of the riders on our two buses, as one memorable event exemplifies. Not more than five hours after our festive departure from Houston, we learn that the Border Patrol outside El Paso, Texas, has detained the two buses riding from Los Angeles. As the officers pull the riders off the bus and question them one by one, vehicles carrying Anglos wiz by the checkpoint unbothered. But no one breaks the solidarity plan: for four hours, the only words coming from the Riders' mouths are "We Shall Overcome," in a medley of accents from around the world.

This isolated event from our two weeks on the road is a more true-to-life experience for many immigrants--particularly the 8 million undocumented--than the convivial greetings we received in our stops along the way. Racial profiling, legal exclusion from colleges and universities, threats of deportation at the workplace, not receiving one's daily wage at the whim of the employer--these were the experiences that the immigrant riders shared on and off the bus.

In Durham, Silvester joined 17-year-old Nancy, who immigrated illegally to the U.S. with her parents when she was four, in front of 500 people at the Immaculate Conception Church to speak out in favor of a law that would allow the passionate and articulate A student to attend college. When she returned to her seat, Nancy burst into tears, letting go of a week's stock of intense emotions--a week that felt more like a month for Nancy, myself and the 80 people riding with us from Houston to New York.

That week, immigrants from 10 countries, African-American civil rights veterans, trade unionists, nuns, Jews and students cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where on Bloody Sunday 1965, police unleashed tear gas and billy clubs on peaceful marchers. We visit the site in Anniston, Ala., where white supremacists firebombed an integrated bus. We are greeted by Martin Luther King III, and Southern Christian Leadership Council co-founders James Orange and Joseph Lowery join us on the bus. At Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte we chant "We are one! Somos uno!" which becomes the unofficial motto of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. And in Atlanta, 3,000 immigrants hit the streets for the first Latino-organized demonstration in Georgia's history.

Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer for the Harris County Central Labor Council in Houston and co-organizer of the Houston buses, said to one of the organizers at the rally: "You've got 3,000 new friends. What are you going to do?" "We are building relationships," the organizer responded.

Now, three weeks later, the wake of the Freedom Ride is subsiding and the strength of those relationships is beginning to be tested. What's next for the immigrant rights movement? The Freedom Riders presented a lofty five-point plan that requires a strong and sustained movement: legalization of working, tax-paying immigrants; a clear, efficient and accessible path to full citizenship; a streamlined program to reunify families; equal rights and protections at the workplace for all workers, regardless of immigration status; and civil rights and civil liberties equal for all people. Post Sept. 11, the political reality of changing immigration policy--particularly the amnesty point--is a longshot, said Jose, who studied philosophy in Paraguay before coming to the U.S. five years ago to work. Beneath the enthusiasm of the Freedom Riders, many felt the same way. But the solidarity we built sharing a cramped bus for two weeks kindled hope that change is possible when people work together.

Already, the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride is bearing fruit. Congress is readying to pass the Agricultural Jobs and Opportunities Act, a bipartisan bill that would legalize 500,000 undocumented farmworkers. And the DREAM Act, which would allow high-achieving undocumented students opportunities to attend college, is gaining support.

Durham, too, is feeling the positive effects of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

This month, the Durham City Council unanimously voted in favor of a resolution protecting the rights of all people regardless of immigration status, which gained popular momentum in the wake of the Freedom Rides. In doing so, Durham joins a handful of cities nationwide--Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York--in making immigrants safe to interact with city employees like police and doctors without fear of consequences regarding immigration. The resolution also absolves government workers of playing the role of immigration police.

But the success of the resolution did not come about without a significant community push. At their last meeting, the City Council removed the key phrase "immigration status" from the list of disallowed discriminatory grounds. It was through the persistence of immigrant and non-immigrant activists who came together around the Freedom Rides that the resolution retained its original purpose.

But there is still work to be done. The CLEAR Act, which Congress is considering adding to its laundry list of austere anti-terrorist bills, would nullify the anti-discrimination city resolutions that are beginning to catch on. The CLEAR Act would turn city and state police into immigration officers without the 17 months of training that federal enforcement requires. As in many other cities, Durham activists are lobbying the police chief to write letters to their Congresspeople explaining that such a law would impede the work of police officers and create untrusting and unsafe communities.

The budding partnership of Durham's new Latino community with the established African-American community is another sign of hope, says Theresa El-Amin of the Southern Anti-Racism Network and Jobs with Justice, who witnessed the attempt in City Council to remove immigrants from the anti-discrimination resolution.

Next up on Durham's post-Freedom Ride agenda: a Nov. 18 teach-in and town hall meeting with U.S. Rep. David Price (D-Chapel Hill), where organizers will screen a documentary on the egregious labor violations at the Smithfield packing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., the world's largest hog processing plant, where 5,000 workers slaughter 32,000 hogs a day.

More important, though, say the organizers of the Durham event, is the creation of broad-based movement for immigrants rights.

"The energy is up. People are asking what's next," said Ivan Parra, director of the Latino Community Development Center and emcee of the Sept. 30 stop by the Freedom Riders in Durham. "For those people that have been fearful, this is an example that you can raise your voice." EndBlock

Victoria Kaplan is a senior at Duke University, majoring in cultural anthropology. She rode on the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride as a representative of JERICO, Jews for Equal Rights for Immigrant Communities.

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