Immigrant freedom riders hit DC

Posted 7:54pm Oct 2

by Ilana Weinberg
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

Over 1,000 immigrant workers, activists, union leaders, and supporters gathered on Wednesday at the Bible Way Temple to welcome the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides to Washington, D.C., an event reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

The crowd’s energy failed to cease as emcee Jos Williams, the president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, led them through over three hours of singing, cheering, and motivational speakers.

Modeled after the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides have run buses from 10 U.S. cities. They will have stopped in over 100 cities across the country on the way to their final destination in Flushing, Queens, N.Y.

The Freedom Riders are rallying for a better and faster road to citizenship, the right for immigrants to reunite with their families, the right to organize unions, and the protection of civil rights.

After a rendition of “We shall not be moved”, Williams announced to a roaring audience that Rosa Parks, the woman who started the whole movement 42 years ago, endorsed the IWFR earlier that day.

Maria Elena Durazo, National Chair of the IWFR, spoke about the buses that were detained by the border patrol in El Paso, Texas. She led the riders in a protest of non-violent resistance. “The only words that came out of our mouths were ‘We shall overcome,'” she said.

At the end of the night, featured speaker Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., one of the original Freedom Riders of 1961, delivered a rousing speech encouraging the immigrants to ride in the spirit of his brothers and sisters. At the end of the speech he announced that he was getting on the bus with the Freedom Riders to travel the final destinations in New Jersey and New York this weekend.

“We will not be satisfied, we will not be at peace, until immigrant workers are treated with dignity. You deserve to be treated with dignity!” he said.

Mayor Anthony Williams came out to voice his support for immigrant rights. He drew parallels between the struggle the immigrants are facing and the lack of representation for citizens in the District of Columbia.

“Here in our city, we are engaged in a longstanding struggle to gain representation. If you live in this country, if you pay taxes in this country, you have the right to be treated as a first class citizen,” he said.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, Congressional Delegate of the District of Columbia who is the only representative without a vote in the House, encouraged the Freedom Riders to take political action, lobby Congress, and “get in their faces.”

“40 years ago, it was also the American Labor Union who led the way for the first great Civil Rights movement. You are the second great Civil Rights movement!” she said.

Other speakers included religious leaders, immigrant workers, and labor union leaders and representatives.

The movement has been endorsed by various student, progressive, and religious groups, as well as two of the Democratic Presidential nominees.

“We are stronger when we are beholden to one another as part of a national community and weaker when we act only as individuals. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride reflects this ideal, and for that, I proudly support their efforts,” wrote former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in a letter to the IWFR.

“Welcoming immigrants to our shores is one of our country’s vital traditions — the heart and soul of the American dream. We cannot continue with a system in which millions of workers and their families live in fear and are subject to economic exploitation,” said Representative Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, in a recent press release.

The Freedom Riders went home after a long and inspirational night, prepared for a day of rallying in front of Congress and marching in parades to support labor unions later in the week. The message they carried away was one of unity and hope.

“I am a very proud immigrant woman who has seen the struggle of tax paying immigrants who are working…in every corner of this great nation, and we are here to stay!” said a Mexican-American freedom rider.

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