Union Tribune

October 5, 2003

Immigrant workers end rally for rights in N.Y.
Tens of thousands demand amnesty


WASHINGTON Hundreds of immigrants from across the country last week tapped into the symbolism of one of the most dramatic social movements in U.S. history, rallying the support of civil rights leaders and labor unions to demand amnesty and workplace protections.

Calling themselves "Immigrant Workers Freedom Riders," they arrived in Washington, D.C., Wednesday on buses from cities as far away as Los Angeles and Seattle. They repeatedly sang "We Shall Overcome," evoking the memory of the civil rights activists who in 1961 drove through the South to rouse the nation's conscience against segregation.

"Si se puede Yes we can," they chanted Friday at a Capitol Hill rally, cheering Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and other congressional Democrats who pledged their support.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the nation's capital in the U.S. House of Representatives, told the rally that the immigrants were carrying on the tradition of the freedom riders.

"We used to call it justice," she said. "You say justicia."

Some waved American flags or the banners of a dozen other nations. Some carried posters demanding amnesty. A few held crucifixes in honor of migrants who have died in the deserts just north of the border. Many booed at the announcement that Republican lawmakers had spurned an invitation to speak to them.

Yesterday, tens of thousands of the freedom riders and labor activists converged in New York for a rally that topped off the two-week bus odyssey.

Cardinal Edward Egan told the largely Hispanic crowd that the millions of undocumented workers in the United States "are all sons and daughters of one Father in heaven."

"We cannot go on simply ignoring or tolerating the plight of these brothers and sisters of ours," Egan said.

The demonstrators seek the legalization of undocumented workers, better working conditions and the reunification of families.

Organizers estimated yesterday's crowd at 100,000 people; police estimates were not available.

The immigrants had a tense moment during their trip when Border Patrol agents boarded two buses that came through a permanent immigration checkpoint in Texas.

San Diego attorney Dan Gregor said that under a plan worked out in advance, the immigrants refused to respond to questions about their legal status. Instead, they showed the agents printed cards that said they were invoking their right to remain silent. Then they repeatedly sang the civil rights anthems "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "We Shall Overcome," as the word got out to supporters across the country including members of Congress who demanded their release.

Gregor said he told one Border Patrol official, "I don't think you want the political trouble and media frenzy that (arrests) would create."

After nearly four hours, the Border Patrol let the buses roll toward the nation's capital.

The head of one of the most influential immigrant activist organizations said the cross-country effort, which included rallies and speeches in 105 cities in 46 states last week, demonstrated the political power immigrants are gaining from labor and civil rights allies.

"This used to be a niche issue, and now it's a movement," said Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum.

"Many politicians on the Hill tend to think that the (immigration) restrictionists have a grass-roots movement and those in favor of immigrant rights do not," he said. "I think this shows the future is with the immigrant rights movement."

The caravan was financed and organized largely by unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Until 2000 the labor organization had favored immigration restrictions because it regarded large-scale immigration as a threat.

But now unions increasingly see "how important immigrants are to the labor movement," said Ron Richardson, executive vice president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, or HERE.

HERE is one of the nation's most active unions, both in seeking new members and in mobilizing political campaigns. While HERE leaders came to Capitol Hill on behalf of immigrants, members across California were mobilizing get-out-the vote campaigns against the recall of Gov. Gray Davis.

In forging their alliance with black leaders, immigrant advocates have managed to ease concerns among blacks who say large-scale immigration aggravates their unemployment problem. Such rumblings are not hard to find in the nation's capital.

"I hear people talking about it on the bus," said Sylvia Thomas, a Washington native. "We don't like it that some of us who are here can't get jobs and then people from other places do get jobs."

But black politicians, such as Washington Mayor Anthony Williams, increasingly see immigrants as an important constituency. At a Wednesday night rally at the Bible Way Temple, a black inner city church, Williams called on all citizens "to be steadfast, vocal and vigilant in our support of laws and policies that do not discriminate against any one of us because of our immigration status or national origin or race."

Williams and Norton said immigration laws should be changed because they slight the contributions of millions of illegal immigrants. But critics saw an irony in a campaign that evoked the memory of the original Freedom Riders' call for enforcement of federal anti-discrimination laws.

"They have been very blatant in saying, 'You should ignore our violation of your immigration laws,' " said Rosemary Jenks, a spokeswoman for NumbersUSA, a Virginia-based restrictionist organization. According to NumbersUSA, the annual influx of more than 1 million legal immigrants and nearly a half million illegal immigrants is fueling a range of social, economic and environmental problems.

Jenks warned that another amnesty would worsen problems Congress unwittingly created with 1986 legislation that provided amnesty to nearly 3 million immigrants. That law is widely believed to have generated a new wave of illegal immigration in the 1990s.

"That 1986 amnesty sent out a message to the entire world that if you risk your life and get into the U.S. illegally, you will eventually get to stay," she said.

Two bills before Congress would bring legal status to many undocumented workers. One proposal involves bringing in workers for temporary farm work and would give undocumented farm workers in the United States a chance to become permanent residents.

The other bill would allow children of illegal immigrants to become legal residents if they entered the United States before the age of 16 and have been here for five years. It also would allow them access to higher education.

At the Capitol Hill rally, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., vowed to seek amnesty for all those "who perform the hardest work, for the longest hours, the jobs that no one else wants to do in this country."

Switching to Spanish, Gutierrez thrilled the crowd with his amnesty pledge. "I am not going to rest until the eight million undocumented persons have justice in this country," he said

Associated Press was used in this report.

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.