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  Public Employee Press

PEP Nov. 2003
Table of Contents
  La Voz

Public Employee Press

Unions rally for immigrants rights


Labor unions and immigrant rights groups recently launched a campaign that they plan to build into a massive nationwide movement to fight for much needed immigration reform.

On Sept. 20, the organizing drive called the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride began barnstorming across the country to gather support. Over 900 immigrants and supporters rode buses from Los Angeles, Seattle and eight other cities to Washington and New York. On their way, they visited more than 100 towns and cities where they met with elected officials, clergy and unionists. In Iowa the governor welcomed the riders and in Nebraska they were met by the mayor of Omaha.

In Washington D.C., they held more than 120 meetings with legislators on Capitol Hill to press for changes in immigration policy to allow immigrant workers to reunite with their families and to push for a road to citizenship.

Inspired by the Freedom Rides and the civil rights movement of the early 1960’s, the caravans of activists continued on to New York City for a final rally on Oct. 4 at Flushing Meadows Park.

Organizers say 100,000 people — including a sizable contingent from DC 37 — converged on the park in Queens, the most ethnically diverse county in the country. There they were welcomed by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a participant in the original freedom rides; John J. Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the main organizer of the rally; Brian McLaughlin, Central Labor Council president and New York City rally chair; Roger Toussaint, an immigrant from Trinidad and president of the Transport Workers Union; William Lucy, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME, DC 37’s parent union; and Lillian Roberts, DC 37 executive director.

“The struggle of immigrant workers is our struggle,” said Mr. Sweeney, whose father was an Irish immigrant. “We believe, as did Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Addressing the freedom riders, Mr. Lucy said, “You have relit the flame of liberty and freedom for every hard-working immigrant in this nation.” DC 37’s Hyacinth Spence, a Human Rights Specialist and a member of Amalgamated Professional Employees Local 154, spent several months organizing for the rally with union members and community groups. “Today we unite to start the journey for better conditions,” she said.

“The issues confronting our immigrants are serious,” said Lillian Roberts Sept. 24 at a forum on immigration rights. “They face a lack of protection at the workplace, the denial of basic civil rights and civil liberties and deportation.” DC 37’s Citizenship Committee held the event as the union mobilized to greet the freedom riders.

In Wisconsin, one caravan of activists paid a surprise visit to Congress member James Sensenbrenner. As chair of the House Judiciary Committee, he blocked a key immigrant rights bill last year by refusing to hold a vote. The Student Adjustment Act would help about 50,000 high school graduates who face obstacles to attending college or getting work permits because they originally were brought to the U.S. as toddlers without legal documentation.

The Freedom Riders also want to expand immigrant rights with additional visas to reunite families, an amnesty program for undocumented immigrants like the one enacted in 1986 and full protection from exploitation under U.S. labor laws that guarantee minimum wages, health and safety protection and the right to organize.

“Close the INS and open the border,” chanted one contingent at the park Oct. 4, referring to the hated Immigration and Naturalization Service, as they marched past booths selling tortillas and jerk chicken. “No human is illegal,” said another activist’s sign. “We grow not by closing our borders, but by opening our hearts,” Mr. Sweeney said.






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