Cross-country journey invigorates movement for immigrants' rights
Written by Michelle Gabriel
November 2003

Exhausted from their cross-country journey but filled with enthusiasm, more than 100,000 immigrant workers and their supporters gathered in New York at a spirited rally on Oct. 4 to celebrate the final stop of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

Undaunted by a light drizzle, they waved handmade signs and held posters bearing the names of people who disappeared while trying to enter the United States illegally. Some wore shirts declaring, "No human being is illegal."

At the celebration at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, many riders said U.S. rules and laws unfairly place roadblocks in immigrants' paths to citizenship, even though they've worked in the country for years.

"[Americans] trust us with their most precious things: We watch their babies, we clean their houses and their hotels," said 26-year-old Rafael Avila, who has been working in the United States without documentation for 21 years. "Give us [a legal] identity. We are the forgotten people. We are left behind."

The freedom ride involved buses taking off from 10 cities across the country and making their way to Washington, D.C., to lobby members of Congress, then finishing with Saturday's rally in New York.

"It's the start of tomorrow," AFL-CIO Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson said. "It isn't the end of the caravan. It's the beginning of change. We have to get an education program up and going, and carry the message everywhere."

Kim Bobo, executive director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, one of the sponsors of the Freedom Ride, said the experience has inspired the formation of immigrant-rights coalitions in 105 cities. The coalitions' commitment to changing immigration policy "really energized immigrants, who now feel that they have hope and have allies," said Bobo, a member of Good News Community UCC in Chicago.

After September 11, 2001, many employment opportunities for undocumented laborers were closed. As security tightened, crossing the border illegally became more difficult. But the events of September 11 also took center stage in the national policy debate, pushing immigration reform to the sidelines.

Coalition groups now believe they have a good chance of getting immigration reform back on the national agenda. "We hope within two years that there will be a rational immigration program and that immigrant workers will be protected in the workplace," Bobo said.

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