New Freedom Riders Rally Supporters in Urbana and 100 Other Cities

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     , a
crowd of nearly 200 gathered in front
of the Champaign County Courthouse
in Urbana to welcome 45 bus riders
from Chicago. The bus was part of “La
Caravana de la Libertad para los Trabajadores
Inmigrantes,” or “Immigrant
Workers Freedom Ride,” which drew
busses from ten major US cities through 30 states and
more than 100 cities on the way to Washington,DC, and
finally New York City on October 4.
One of the Freedom Riders, Juan Pablo Chavez of
Chicago’s Southwest Organizing Project, told supporters
at the Urbana rally that despite post-9/11 setbacks,
immigrants and their advocates are far from giving up.
“We are strong,” he said. “We are like a wounded, gigantic
elephant that heals and comes back for more.”
A local student named Claudia Blanca choked back
tears to tell her story of one health problem after another,
resulting in near-total deafness. As the crowd chanted,
“Claudia! Claudia!” Blanca said she has found medical
help in the US and now has regained part of her
hearing. Representatives of sponsoring groups also
addressed the crowd, including Champaign City Councilman
Giraldo Rosales, director of the Latino Cultural
Center, and Alejandra Coronel of Champaign County
Health Care Consumers, which is campaigning for
improved interpretation services at hospitals in the area.
Nationwide, Freedom Riders described a sense of
being “part of a movement” rather than simply a campaign
for driver licenses, in-state tuition and a new general
amnesty for undocumented workers already in the
US. And welcoming rallies along the route seemed to
demonstrate the same feeling. One march outside
Atlanta grew unexpectedly from 2000 at its start to well
over 5000 by the end, as local workers and students
dropped what they were doing to swell the ranks.
Four Freedom Rider busses left Chicago. Three
trekked up to Dearborn, Michigan, home to a large
Arab-American population, before continuing across to
Western New York and down to DC. The fourth bus, the
one that passed through Urbana-Champaign, was organized
and funded separately by the Chicago-based Illinois
Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
(ICIRR), a 16-year-old umbrella organization with
around 130 member groups. This bus was the only one
in the Freedom Ride that took a separate route through
its home state rallying support for local issues.
Illinois was also the only state that began the Freedom
Ride over a month early. On August 9, a crowd of
almost 2000 rallied in downtown Chicago in support of
striking Congress Plaza hotel workers, then marched
down Michigan Avenue to surround the hotel.
By the time the Freedom Riders got to Urbana, their
bus had already seen rallies in Aurora, Elgin, Rockford,
the Quad Cities, Beardstown – where 800 Mexican
immigrants eke out a living slaughtering pigs for Excel –
Springfield and Bloomington. They spent one night in
town and attended a couple of events the next day
before hitting the road again. One was a luncheon
thanking University Chancellor Nancy Cantor for her
help on a state law granting in-state tuition to the children
of undocumented workers, a change the Freedom
Riders hope to see go national.
After leaving Urbana-Champaign, the bus headed
south toward a migrant labor camp in Cobden, Illinois,
surrounded by orchards where the workers pick fruit.
But before Cobden, the bus turned to stop at a tiny, desperate
town outside Carbondale called Ullin.
The local economic prognosis was so bad a few years
ago that the town’s political leaders made a deal with the
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Under
intense economic pressure, Ullin agreed to be the site
for a new private for-profit INS detention center, which
doubles as the county jail. The detention center meant
50 new jobs for the needy town, and the INS pays for the
local jail, but the price may have been too high. The
local economy is still bad, only now relatives of many
INS detainees from Chicago have to travel six hours
south to Ullin to see their loved ones.
Another effect of siting the detention center in Ullin,
ironically, is that a number of people in a 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 antiimmigrant
lobbies. One local official was even willing to
express a certain ambivalence about his role. According
to ICIRR’s executive director Joshua Hoyt, the State
Attorney in Ullin applauded the Freedom Ride.“He told
us, I think what you’re doing is great. These are nice
people, not criminals,” Hoyt said. “We wish everyone
here was as nice as these detainees, because we’d be out
of a job.”
But the purpose of the Freedom Ride was also to
challenge this system, not just feel bad about it, and for
the undocumented among the Riders, that meant taking
some risks. “We [Freedom Riders] went inside the
detention center,” says Demian Kogan. “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.”
Kogan is a senior in political science at UIUC and an
organizer of the Urbana-Champaign events.
In Washington, however, Freedom Riders who
attempted to meet with Congressman Tim Johnson (DIL)
encountered a distinctly different attitude than they
found in Ullin. “You have no respect for the political
process,” Johnson told Kogan, when the young activist
stopped Johnson in the hallway. Kogan had already been
meeting with Johnson’s labor aide, who knew little or
nothing about immigration issues. Johnson’s immigration
aide, Kogan was told, would not be available. But
when Kogan told Johnson that he was there from Johnson’s
district, the Congressman listened briefly, remaining
The Freedom Riders’ five-point agenda includes
establishing legal protections for all workers, loosening
restrictions that prevent legal immigrants from being
joined by their families for up to 15 years, and opposing
the so-called CLEAR Act, which would extend the
authority to detain people on immigration violations to
local law enforcement.
On the day of the Urbana rally, the News-Gazette
ran a vicious attack on the Freedom Riders as a “guest
commentary”. The piece called the Immigrant Workers
Freedom Ride (IWFR) a “mockery” of the “real Freedom
Riders who put their lives on the line in pursuit of
justice.” The author was a California resident who runs
an anti-immigrant website.
Congressman John D. Lewis (D-Georgia), who was
one of the original Freedom Riders, couldn’t disagree
more, but his comments were nowhere to be found in
the News-Gazette. Lewis welcomed the busses to DC,
telling Freedom Riders, “You have rekindled the spirit of
justice in this country.” He also rode one of the busses
part of the way.
Around the same time a union local, AFSCME 444,
also in California, wrote a letter to AFL-CIO President
John Sweeney explaining why Local 444 refused to support
the new Freedom Ride. The letter cited objections
similar to the above “guest commentary”. Then, accusing
the AFL-CIO of neglecting its responsibilities to
fight for “American workers”, the letter argued that, in
the current context, the Freedom Ride simply meant
more workers competing for scarcer and meaner jobs.
This argument is nothing new. For many years the
American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial
Organizations (AFL-CIO) fought for tougher
restrictions on immigration and against immigrant
workers’ rights.Yet even then, some unions – the United
Farm Workers, HERE, Service Employees,Needletrades,
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. Eventually, in
February of 2000 the AFL-CIO reversed its longstanding
policy on immigration, embracing immigrant
workers’ rights.
And according to spokesman David Koff, the jobscompetition
argument is not only nothing new, it’s flat
wrong. On loan to the Immigrant Workers Freedom
Ride from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant
Employees (HERE), Koff says the issue is not “open borders
or closed borders” but “smart borders.”
“The fact is,” says Koff, “they are here and they will
continue to come. The US, 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 8-10 million undocumented
people living in the country right now. There can be
no more visible sign of the failure of US immigration
policy than such a large population of unprotected
So when organized labor dropped its restrictionist or
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.”
“Legalization,” says Koff, “is essential so everyone in
the workplace is on an equal footing.”

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