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Refusing to be Illegal: Immigrant Labor Tour Rolls into Queens

Sarah Stuteville Oct 15, 2003

“¡Sí se puede! (Yes we can!),” the crowd chanted as busload after busload of Freedom Riders poured into Flushing Meadows on Saturday morning. Sí se puede has become the rallying cry for the Freedom Riders, and that spirit of determination and excitement charged the air at a final mass rally this weekend. Organizers estimated 100,000 immigrants and supporters celebrated the end of two weeks of rallies, and marked what the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride hopes is only the beginning of a new immigrant rights movement.

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HOP ON THE BUS: “We love America, but we must get together for our rights,” say the Freedom Riders who arrived in New York from all over the country on Sep. 20.

On Sep. 20, 18 buses carrying immigrants and supporters set out from across the United States to bring demands for immigrant civil liberties to New York and Washington. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride was organized by a national sponsoring committee that includes the AFL-CIO and other unions, politicians, religious leaders and community organizations in one of the first major collaborations of labor and immigrant rights movements in the country.

Colombian Walther Rodriguez, a day laborer and Freedom Rider from Northern Virginia, embodied the intensity and passion felt among the riders.

“We are an indispensable labor force in this country, and we are the ones they give the heaviest, dirtiest, worst paid work,” he stated, pounding his fist into his hand.

Walther came to this country alone three years ago with a plan. He had completed his first few years at university in Colombia and wanted to earn money to pursue a law degree. He left his wife and two children and headed for Herndon, a small town in Northern Virginia not far from Washington, D.C., where he had heard he could find work as a day laborer.

The idea was to work hard, save some money and return to Colombia within the year, but three years later he has given up that dream. He sends money home but has not visited since he left – afraid that in a post-September 11 climate he wouldn’t be able to return – and says he doesn’t know when or if he’ll return.

Walther wakes up before the sun every morning to join a growing force of Mexican and Central American day laborers on a street corner in downtown Herndon where they compete for any jobs offered – from construction and renovation to gardening – for an unofficial wage of ten dollars an hour.

Of the 30 to 50 men who gather daily in search of work in Herndon, only about 10 to 15 percent are actually picked up. That keeps wages non-negotiable, says Jose Vanegas, an organizer affiliated with Jobs for Justice who is currently working with day laborers in Herndon and championing for immigrant rights in Northern Virginia. Jose Vanegas is himself an immigrant from Colombia. He arrived in the United States 30 years ago with both of his parents. He has since become a citizen and speaks proudly of the successful catering business his family has established in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Vanegas speaks to the broader issues of the immigrant-rights movement, naturalization, the right of reunification (the right to bring family members to the United States), and protecting immigrants in the workplace. But first and foremost he says Herndon day laborers need a permanent location to work out of, a kind of community center that could serve as a base for workers, a place to hold morning English classes while workers wait for work, a place to organize and provide resources, a way for this growing community to become legitimized in Herndon. Two years ago this goal seemed within reach. A local businessman had donated a space and things seemed to be moving forward, but then September 11 and its anti-immigrant fallout came to Herndon.

Suddenly the idea of a resource center for illegal immigrants became a contentious issue, the businessman pulled out, and Vanegas went back to the drawing board. While he feels that politics have allowed anti-immigrant feelings to grow in Herndon, he says the potential for support is also there and the mayor and town council have already agreed to investigate a new site.

Immigrant rights in the wake of September 11 were a theme throughout the day as speakers expressed a sense of urgency, a need to bring immigrant rights to the forefront at a time when they are not only being neglected but potentially destroyed. Many placards held by protesters, whether Latino, Arab, Asian, or Caribbean, proclaimed, “We are workers, not terrorists.”

As Halim Ahmed, a Bangladeshi immigrant and union organizer for Hotel Workers Local Union 6 out of Astoria, Queens stated, “We have known for a long long time America is the only land of opportunity, but now we feel that people don’t want us here and that feeling is getting worse day by day. We love America, we sing America, our children’s future is America, our children are America, they feel American and wave the American flag but we must get together for our rights.”

While the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride has been lauded by organizers as a success it was met with some opposition. In Texas three buses of Freedom Riders traveling from Los Angeles were stopped by immigration officials who threatened riders with arrest and deportation.

But as Emily Andrews, union organizer, explains, “The strategy was that no one carried any identification, so illegal immigrants and supporters alike had no documentation of any kind, hindering officials’ ability to process anyone or determine their status.” After a three-hour-long delay, during which time union presidents and members of congress appealed to the Bush administration and supporters flooded phone lines, the riders were allowed to continue.

Throughout the day participants spoke of holding the momentum gathered by these heady last few weeks. As Gifford Miller, member of the New York City Council, declared, “You are New York, you are America, you look beautiful from here, this is a beautiful moment… this is the beginning my friends, this is only the beginning. We are here to start a movement.”

In the meantime day laborers like Walther continue to work sunup to sundown, sometimes 10 and 12 hour days for a barely living wage, no benefits, no job security and no recognition. When asked why he stays and if he likes it here, his furrowed brow mirrors the complexity of the question: “No, I don’t like it here,” he states bluntly, “but here is where the opportunity is… We are at this march today because we are convinced that one day we’ll get a chance and that one day we’ll be triumphant.”