In 1961, an interracial group of student activists boarded busses to commence a ride into the Deep South. Branded "niggers and nigger-lovers," the Freedom Riders set out to desegregate interstate bussing and challenge the injustice of Jim Crow racism. Ultimately, they succeeded in altering the face the American politics.
Starting September 20, a new group of riders departed from cities across the country. Those leading the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride will make over 100 stops to speak in local churches and union halls before meeting with legislators in Washington, D.C. and then moving on to New York City for a massive October 4 rally. Although the activists will not be subjected to savage beatings by enraged white mobs, they have nevertheless risked their livelihoods to promote racial and economic justice.
These individuals are demanding amnesty for the millions of undocumented workers in the United States. Many riders are immigrants who have been paid sub-minimum wages by employers and threatened with deportation when they insisted on dignified working conditions. All have put themselves at risk by coming forward in a political climate that marks immigrants as enemies. Yet, as surely as the new Freedom Riders stand for a just program of immediate reform, they represent a force that will be critical in defeating a Bush reelection and shaping the future of progressive America.
Early in his presidency, George W. Bush was brokering a deal with Mexican president Vicente Fox that would have established a new "guest worker" program and slightly increased Mexican workers' opportunities to receive green cards. Then came 9/11. Since the onset of the "War on Terror," the administration has taken a hostile stance toward immigrants. Attorney General John Ashcroft has presided over a series of repressive "special registrations" for Muslims. Other discriminatory measures have considered immigrant communities "guilty until proven innocent," treating non-citizens as suspects rather than as an important source of national strength.
The arguments for reform, however, remain vital. The Freedom Riders point out that immigrant workers fill many undesirable yet integral jobs, adding $10 billion each year to the U.S. economy. Recognizing these contributions, even some conservatives, such as Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), have joined calls for new immigration policy. While their proposals to revive the restrictive "guest worker" program may be flawed, they make an important security argument: that legalization would stem the market for fake documents and allow immigrants to report information without fearing deportation.
More basically, activists hope to show that the current status of immigrants as second-class citizens is an affront to democratic values: As Freedom Ride chairwoman Maria Elena Durazo recently argued, immigrant workers are "exploited by unscrupulous employers. They're separated from their families, and they are denied basic due-process rights."
In addition to a broad amnesty, the labor movement and its allies want to reinforce labor protections and streamline the processes for citizenship and family reunification. They have good reason to believe they can reinvigorate a reform agenda in the near future. At their September 4 candidates' debate in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Democratic presidential hopefuls struggled to outdo each other's pledges of commitment. "I supported and was prepared to vote for amnesty from 1986," said Sen. John Kerry. "It's matter of human rights, a matter of civil rights, a matter of fairness to Americans." Howard Dean added that "for 9/11 to have affected our immigration policy... with Latin America is ridiculous."
Of course, these statements were made by candidates eager to charm the Latino electorate. Hispanics surpassed African-Americans this year to become the largest minority group in the country, according to the Census Bureau. In an excellent analysis of Latino voters' growing weight in electoral politics, Nathan Newman of the National Lawyers Guild recently pointed out that although California Republicans swept into power in the statehouse in 1994 while promoting the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, they doomed themselves in the long term. Asian Americans and Latinos started registering to vote in record numbers, and (the current recall fiasco notwithstanding) California has since become a stolidly one-party state -- for the Democrats.
An anticipated 8 million Latinos will vote in 2004 -- up from 6 million in the last presidential election, when 35% voted for George W. Bush and 62% for Al Gore. With the larger pool in play, President Bush will not only have to convince a greater number of Latinos and other minorities to vote for him, he will have to persuade a larger percentage of them -- as the same gap in percentage points will signify a greater number of votes. In future elections, if activists win the right to vote for some of the 11 million nonresident Latinos in the country, the Latino vote would become immediately and overwhelmingly decisive.
The Democratic Party is more than happy to shore up another important constituency. But their wooing of the vote does not guarantee a new liberal era. Centrist "New Democrats" have been known to betray minority communities by standing "tough" on criminal justice and welfare reform, adopting a staunch fiscal conservatism, and cozying up with corporate interests. We can be sure that Karl Rove will be ready to use abortion and other wedge issues to court away Latino voters when Democrats waver on their populist pledges.
That's why the labor movement's commitment to immigrant workers is critical. Over the past two decades, unions including the service employees (SEIU), the hotel and restaurant workers (HERE), and the needletrades union (UNITE) have launched an aggressive drive to organize new members and build political strength around economic justice issues. Immigrant workers in the fast-growing service sector of our economy have played a key role in the new organizing campaigns. These union members have succeeded in demanding a new level of accountability from elected officials in places like L.A. and Las Vegas. As Latino workers, in particular, emerge as leaders in the renewed labor movement, they are connecting their communities to a brand of progressivism that may swiftly gain the power to reverse the Democratic Party's steady rightward shift.
As a broad-based mobilization, today's Rides bear less resemblance to the small, militant Freedom Rides of 1961 than to the 1963 March on Washington, which marked its 40th anniversary last month. Like that historic march against segregation, the ride for immigrant rights will do more than draw national attention to urgently needed reforms. It will herald a movement whose time has come.
Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached via the web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com. This article first appeared on TomPaine.com. Research assistance provided by Jason Rowe.