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New freedom riders call for immigrant workers' rights

9/30/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

Photographs, video and other items are available with this report.

By Heather Peck Stahl*

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Emma Lozano. Photo number W03024. Accompanies UMNS #459

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The Rev. Jim Lawson. Photo number W03023. Accompanies UMNS #459

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The Rev. Jim Lawson (center), national civil rights leader and retired United Methodist pastor, helps carry a sign during a stop of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride 2003 in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo number 03-316, Accompanies UMNS #465, 9/30/03

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Immigrant workers, church and labor leaders join the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride 2003 during a stop in Nashville, Tenn., The Freedom Ride is a nationwide effort to establish civil and workers’ rights for all immigrants to the United States. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo number 03-315, Accompanies UMNS #465, 9/30/03

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Amanda Figueroa of Los Angeles (right) holds a cross commemorating Nicolas de Jesus Garcia Ventura, who died trying to gain a better life in the United States, during a stop of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride 2003 in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo number 03-314, Accompanies UMNS #465, 9/30/03
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - Civil rights pioneer Jim Lawson has a simple explanation for why undocumented immigrant workers should have rights in the United States.

"In God's eyes, there is no such thing as an illegal person," he said.

The retired United Methodist pastor spoke to 500 people who gathered in downtown Nashville to rally for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride 2003, a nationwide effort to promote civil and workers' rights for all immigrants to the United States. The ride started in 10 cities on Sept. 20 and will end Oct. 4, when the buses converge in New York.

"Like the civil rights movement, the plight of immigrant workers is about denial of human rights," Lawson said. "… And we must remember that black Americans will not achieve full human rights if immigrant workers do not achieve them.

"As we move to Washington, D.C., and New York City, we are launching a 10-year effort to establish justice for all persons from all nations," he said.

Modeled after the Freedom Rides for civil rights four decades ago, the 2003 campaign seeks to bring immigrants' rights issues to the forefront of the nation's political debate. Hundreds of immigrants and supporters are traveling by bus to more than 100 U.S. cities, giving voice to an estimated 9 million undocumented immigrants seeking equal rights.

Organizers said the effort is calling for a more humane immigration policy that:
· Grants legal status to taxpaying, law-abiding immigrant workers already established in the United States.
· Clears the path to citizenship and full political participation for new Americans.
· Restores labor protections so that all workers, including immigrant workers, are treated fairly on the job.
· Reunites families.
· Treats immigrants equally under the law.

Traveling a combined 20,000 miles of U.S. highways, the freedom riders will stop in Washington Oct. 1 to lobby Congress, then proceed to New York City for a mass demonstration.

In Nashville, area union workers and immigrant supporters greeted 85 freedom riders Sept. 29. Together, they followed a marching band across a pedestrian bridge over the Cumberland River. Participants carried U.S. and other flags, signs supporting workers' rights and foot-high crosses commemorating immigrants who died trying to get a better life in the United States. The peaceful group sang, "We Shall Overcome," and frequently chanted in Spanish, "Yes, we can!" Participants then rallied in the early evening shadow of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The assembly culminated a day that began with a noontime gathering at the Metro Courthouse, lunch at a local Baptist church, and the viewing of a film about 1959 efforts to desegregate downtown Nashville.

Lawson, a leader of the 1961 Freedom Rides and organizer of the nonviolent effort to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville, noted that the "multicultural, multiracial, multilingual, and multi-creedal" gathering in Nashville could not have happened 44 years earlier. "This is proof that positive change can happen."

To the cheers of the crowd, he said that "immigrant workers have not taken away jobs from any other Americans."

Lawson criticized the "plantation capitalism" of U.S. corporations, which he described as the belief that all humans are not equal and that some people can be paid less than living wages through a form of slavery.

While complimenting his audience for its use of nonviolent tactics, he criticized President George Bush and other U.S. leaders for what he called the belief that you can "bomb people into democracy."

He placed part of the blame for poor U.S. immigration laws upon the "$800-billion war machine," and he called upon religions to "stop blessing war and violence."

The pastor emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles told United Methodist News Service that the denomination has great potential for helping immigrants. "We need to have a spiritual revolution to offset the epidemic spirit of meanness, sexism, racism and bigotry. This spirit of this world contradicts what Jesus taught - compassion, truth, service and love."

The freedom riders include immigrants from Mexico, China, El Salvador, the Philippines, Ethiopia and other countries.

One such passenger is Carolina Bank Munoz, who joined the Freedom Ride Sept. 23 in her hometown of Los Angeles. In 1978, Munoz and her parents fled for their lives from Chile, when Gen. Augusto Pinochet was in power. Her family became naturalized U.S. citizens in 1989.

"Our nation needs to take responsibility for its foreign policies that directly cause immigration," said Munoz, who assists immigrant workers at the UCLA Labor Center. "Wars and globalization force people to leave their homelands and seek a safer place to live. Many times these immigrants do not want to leave their homes, but out of fear for their safety or welfare, they must. My family fled Chile because of a harsh dictator who was supported by the U.S. government."

Another passenger is Inez Magdalena Duarte of Tucson, Ariz. Her grandfather was part of the Bracero, a U.S. program from 1942 to 1960 that recruited immigrants for labor during World War II.

"My grandfather and the other immigrants could not decide where they would work, and they had no voice on the job site," said Duarte, a student at the University of Arizona. She added that she joined the Freedom Ride to participate in a movement that improves immigrant workers' rights, so history will not repeat itself.

The rides are sponsored by a coalition of labor organizations, such as the AFL-CIO and United Farm Workers of America, and workers' rights groups, such as Jobs With Justice. Along with Lawson, other civil rights figures on the sponsoring committee include the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a United Methodist, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who participated in the original Freedom Rides. The campaign is also endorsed by a host of political leaders and organizations.

More information on the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride 2003 is available at
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*Stahl is a freelance journalist and editor in Nashville, Tenn.

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