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Unions Embrace Freedom Riders' Fight for Immigrant Justice

In one community after another on their two-week journey, pioneering immigrants and activists were greeted by gleeful crowds of union members, religious leaders and other advocates for social justice, all clapping, chanting and waving signs of support.

They disembarked the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride buses to hugs and tears and music and promises that they will never stand alone in their fight for the legal and workplace rights that American citizens often take for granted.

"It was a great, amazing experience," said Jose Villarreal, a director representing the manufacturing division of CWA Local 9400. "We had great welcomes in all the places we touched. We realized that the problems we have are problems everywhere, the same issues all over the country."

Bessie Mansfield, a retired member of Local 6222 in Texas, was another CWA member on board the buses. "Everywhere we went, people were cheering," she said. "In Atlanta, we were looking for it to be small, but when we got there, they said we were going to march with a police escort. It had been on the radio and there were people all along the streets."

In all, 18 buses of immigrant workers and their supporters traveled from across the country on a journey patterned after the Freedom Rides of the 1960s that helped shine a light on civil rights abuses in the South.

The buses converged first in Washington, D.C., then in New Jersey and New York City, where organizers brought Mansfield to the stage with other riders. "I wish I'd had my camera," she said. "All I could see was a sea of people."

In Washington, CWA member Angela Mejia, also of Local 6222 in Houston, led her fellow riders in singing "We Shall Overcome" as they made their way through a throng of supporters. Another member of the local, Jesse Fuentes, strummed his guitar.

CWA Executive Vice President Larry Cohen, who earlier led a presentation about the Freedom Ride at CWA headquarters, praised the riders and called on union members to fight for their rights.

"Corporations exploit immigrant workers and treat them shamefully," he said. "They lobby for loopholes to keep this source of cheap labor. We in the labor movement should demand that these workers be given a path to full legal rights independent of their employers."

After the rally in Washington, immigrants and supporters spent a day lobbying Congress with help from union members and staff, including CWA. The activists are fighting for legal status for immigrant workers who are in the United States illegally and for policies that would make it easier for families to be reunited, as well as strengthened civil rights and labor protections.

"Immigrant workers work hard, pay taxes and sacrifice for their families," event organizers said. "They work as construction workers, doctors, nurses, janitors, meatpackers, chefs, busboys, engineers, farm workers and soldiers. They care for our children, tend to our elderly, pick and serve our food, build and clean our houses and want what we all want: a fair shot at the American Dream."

But they said the country's "broken immigration system keeps millions of hardworking immigrants from becoming full members and enjoying equal rights in this nation of immigrants."

Mansfield was in a group that met with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who spent 45 minutes with them. "We felt like we were listened to," she said.

Villarreal, who came to the United States from Mexico 22 years ago and now represents mostly immigrants with jobs in the IUE division of Local 9400, said "immigrant workers are already working and paying taxes and basically what we are asking is, shouldn't they have the same rights as any other human beings?"

The bus Villarreal was on was one of two Freedom Ride buses from southern California that U.S. Border Patrol agents detained for several hours at an immigration checkpoint in El Paso. The riders stuck to a solidarity plan, presenting cards of assertion that they would remain silent without legal counsel and sang songs of solidarity. Agents boarded the buses several times, then put the riders in detention separated by gender. They were ultimately allowed to leave with no charges filed, but the experience was daunting.

"The detention center cell was humbling for me," one rider wrote in a journal e-mailed to supporters. "Working for Derechos Humanos, I communicate with many who have gone through this experience, and I now understand the frightening, clinical feel of the detention cells. I pace off about 9 feet in width, and there is a metal toilet with no privacy, toilet paper, or door. The metal door has a 1-foot square window, out of which you can see the cell across the hall. On the door, names and cities have been carved into the paint. One message questions 'Why am I here?' and I can't help but wonder the same.

"We are 14 women in our cell. Some of us cry, others laugh to ease the tension, and others just sing. We hold hands, hug, and keep up our spirits with chants and songs. We can see out of the window at our brothers across the hall. When we falter, their voices singing start us up again."

But nothing dampened the riders' enthusiasm or sense of unity. Mansfield remembered the music at one stop, with one man playing a flute, another playing a guitar and many people singing. "It just brought about a happy feeling," she said. "We were all one. There was no difference in color, no difference in language."

To learn more about the ride and how union families can help in the fight for immigrant justice, see the ride's website at