In 1961, an interracial group of student activists boarded busses to commence a ride into the
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
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
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
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)
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 needle trades 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
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
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.