A New Kind of Freedom Ride


busloads of citizens, resident aliens, and undocumented workers
departed from ten U.S. cities on September 26, making stops in over
100 more communities to converge on Washington, DC, before finally
ending at a rally in New York City on October 4. This Immigrant
Workers Freedom Ride (IWFR), organized to educate citizens along
the way and focus attention on the plight of undocumented workers
in the U.S., drew many unlikely participants. Vicki Harris, a U.S.
citizen, is black, a union member, and works in the hotel industry—where
for decades undocumented immigrants have displaced black union workers
and driven wages down. 

despite any reasons Harris and other citizen workers might have
had to resent the undocumented workers, when law enforcement authorities
near the Canadian border at Buffalo, New York stopped Harris’s
bus, the immigrants on the bus were her first thought. “We
were praying for them, because they’re undocumented,”
Harris says. 

one was detained in the end, in Buffalo or at another harrowing
stop along the U.S.-Mexican border. But scares like this were enough
to sensitize many citizens among the riders who, like Harris, had
climbed aboard to show support for their unions, without much knowledge
of what their undocumented coworkers face. 

a few days and nights on the bus, Harris says she discovered a new,
cross-cultural family and a side of herself she hadn’t known
existed. “You’re thinking you’re in pretty bad shape,”
she says, “until you meet somebody worse off. It brings tears
to your eyes.” She says she found that she likes helping people
and, “If you stick together, you can accomplish something.” 



citizen participants on the week-and-a-half Freedom Ride learned
more about immigrant workers than the anxiety of possible deportation,
and they spread the news as they went. Some buses visited company
towns populated overwhelmingly by immigrant labor and migrant labor
camps where farmworkers who pick the nation’s fruit are sequestered
nightly. Under the best of circumstances federal minimum wage and
other labor standards do not cover farmworkers. For immigrant workers
the best circumstances are all but unknown. 

year, three citrus growers in Florida were convicted of federal
slavery charges after the Coalition of Immokalee Workers exposed
violent conditions in local fields and orchards. Many field hands
work in intense heat with no access to toilets or drinking water.
Employers have subjected workers to beatings, threats, extortion,
and whole camps are locked up at night to prevent anyone entering
or leaving. Federal authorities have documented employers holding
workers at gun- point in the fields. 

stops on the Freedom Ride included university towns where children
of undocumented workers must pay out-of-state tuition, no matter
how long they have lived in-state. One of the four Chicago buses,
organized by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
(ICIRR), made a stop at a private for-profit immigrant detention
center in Ullin, Illinois, just outside Carbondale. 

Riders learned that the economic prognosis was so bad in Ullin a
few years ago that the town’s political leaders agreed to a
deal with the Immigration and Naturalization Service for a federally
funded immigrant detention center, which doubles as the county jail.
Most of the detainees in Ullin are from Chicago, six hours away,
and family members face serious obstacles to visiting loved ones
detained in the tiny town. 

side effect of the detention center in Ullin, the Freedom Riders
discovered, is that a number of people in this small town in southern
Illinois have now learned, through direct contact they would not
have otherwise had, that “illegal aliens” are not the
inhuman vermin depicted by anti-immigrant lobbies. One local official
was even willing to express a certain ambivalence about his role.
The State Attorney in Ullin applauded the Freedom Ride. According
to ICIRR’s executive director Joshua Hoyt: “He told us,
I think what you’re doing is great. These are nice people,
not criminals. We wish everyone here was as nice as these detainees,
because we’d be out of a job.” 

the purpose of the Freedom Ride was also to challenge U.S. immigration
policy, not just feel bad about it, and that meant taking some risks,
especially for the undocumented riders. “We went inside the
detention center,” says Demian Kogan, a student volunteer organizer
for ICIRR. “We couldn’t see the cells—they call them
pods—or meet with the detainees, but there were 45 of us and
some were undocumented. It was very symbolic, very powerful.”

the same time on the other side of the country, border guards were
stopping one IWFR bus along the U.S.-Mexican border, demanding papers.
But when citizens, resident aliens, and undocumented Riders all
refused to present documents in solidarity, the guards eventually
backed down.  



Freedom Ride represents a sea change in organized labor. For many
years the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial
Organizations (AFL- CIO) fought for more restrictions on immigration
and against immigrant workers’ rights. The theory was that
new immigrants served as competition for citizen workers, dragging
down hard-won wages and benefits, so immigration had to be stopped. 

United Farm Workers did not belong to the AFL-CIO when its overwhelmingly
immigrant membership first challenged conditions in the fields and
growers were able to hire Teamsters to assault UFW pickets. 

some AFL-CIO unions —Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees
(HERE), Service Employees, United Needletrades Industries and Textile
Employees (UNITE), United Food and Commercial Workers and the Laborers
Union—took a different tactic. They organized the immigrants
into their unions and fought hard to raise the living standards
of all their members. These unions argued that if labor improves
the working conditions of the worst off then no one can drop below
that improved level. Eventually, in February 2000, the AFL-CIO reversed
its longstanding policy and em- braced immigrant workers’ rights. 

then the farmworkers had joined the AFL-CIO and farm- workers’
cofounder Linda Chavez- Thompson had been elected AFL-CIO vice president.
The student anti-sweatshop movement was in full swing as UNITE worked
with student activists on energetic campaigns against sweatshop
employers Guess, Nike, and the Gap, among others, building visionary
student-labor coalitions in the process. New farmworkers unions
had sprung up around the country and gained popular support for
corporate campaigns involving boycotts. 

1996 campaign by Pineros y Campesinos Unidos Noroeste against the
makers of vegetarian Gardenburger was the first such boycott for
a generation of students too young to remember Cesar Chavez and
the “No uvas” grape boycott. In the last two years, the
tomato pickers’ fight against fast food giant Taco Bell has
been inspiring college students around the country to “Boot
the Bell” off their campuses. 

of the Freedom Riders— citizens, green card holders, and undocumented
workers alike—describe a sense of being “part of a movement”
beyond a simple campaign with a five-point agenda. This impression
was likely due at least in part to the exuberant reception that
the buses received in many towns along the route. One march outside
Atlanta grew unexpectedly from 2,000 to over 5,000, as local workers
and students dropped what they were doing to swell the ranks when
they heard the Freedom Riders were in town. 



some remain unconvinced. As the Freedom Ride began, Local 444 of
the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees
(AFSCME) published an open letter to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney
explaining why they would not support the Freedom Ride. 

letter repeated charges made by anti-immigration groups, deriding
the event’s name chosen to honor the original Freedom Riders
in the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Those Freedom Riders, the letter
said, risked life and limb to stand up for their legal rights, while
the new Freedom Riders are demanding rights not yet enshrined in
law: the right to qualify for driver licenses without Social Security
numbers, in-state tuition for children of undocumented workers,
a general amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and a better process
for reuniting families. Many legal immigrants must now wait as long
as 15 years before they can bring family members to join them in
the U.S. These waiting periods are cited by some as a major cause
of illegal immigration. 

argument, that the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride somehow tarnished
the memory of the earlier Freedom Riders, popped up in editorial
pages across the country. The point was always made, incidentally,
with conspicuous omission of any reference to the opinions of any
actual participant in those legendary Freedom Rides. Several are
still around, however. Congressperson John D. Lewis (D-GA), for
one, welcomed the buses to DC, telling Freedom Riders, “You
have rekindled the spirit of justice in this country.” He also
rode one of the buses part of the way. 

AFSCME letter also blamed the AFL-CIO for recent job losses and
accused the labor federation of neglecting its responsibilities
to fight for “American workers,” arguing that, in the
current context, the Freedom Ride means more workers competing for
scarcer and meaner jobs. 

according to David Koff, a staffer on loan to the IWFR from HERE,
this jobs-competition argument is flat wrong. He says the issue
is not “open borders or closed borders” but “smart

fact is,” says Koff, “they are here and they will continue
to come. The U.S., like every other industrialized nation, is dependent
on foreign-born labor to expand its economy.” According to
the 1990- 2000 Census, Koff says, foreign- born workers filled nearly
half the new jobs created. “There are eight to ten million
undocumented people living in the country right now. There can be
no more visible sign of the failure of U.S. immigration policy than
such a large population of unprotected workers.” 

when organized labor dropped its anti-immigrant policies, says Koff,
it was partly in recognition of the fact that “You can’t
have a subclass of vulnerable workers who can be deported without
holding down the capacity of all workers to improve their lives.”
In other words, as workers in this country struggle to improve wages
and working conditions, the growing population of undocumented workers
“becomes an anchor that holds down the efforts of others.” 

is essential,” says Koff, “so everyone in the workplace
is on an equal footing.” 

Harris and hundreds of others touched by this event, the Immigrant
Workers Freedom Ride is what the union movement is all about—solidarity. 


Ricky Baldwin
is a longtime labor activist and writer whose articles have appeared

In These Times, Dollars & Sense, Labor Notes, Z
Magazine, Extra!,

and elsewhere.