Inspired by the civil rights Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, the Immigrant Workers “Freedom Ride” made its final two stops in Washington D.C. and New York City last week. Eighteen buses carrying 900 immigrants from 50 countries visited more than 100 U.S. cities over two weeks, calling for better working conditions, legal status and other reforms for legal and illegal immigrants.
Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson took the opportunity to remind Americans of a basic demographic fact:
“For the first time in American history, then, we have a huge immigrant population — the 2000 Census says that 12.4 percent of the national workforce is immigrant — permanently consigned not even to second-class citizenship but no citizenship at all. “
In Washington the Freedom Riders pulled up at the Capitol to lobby lawmakers. There are two bills before Congress that would legalize the status of many undocumented workers. One would give undocumented farm workers in the U.S. a chance to become permanent residents. Another would allow children of illegal immigrants to become legal residents if they entered the U.S. before the age of 16 and have been here for five years. It also allows them access to higher education.
Meyerson argues that in the past 25 years, immigrants, encouraged by poltical gains made by ethnic groups, are becoming a factor in politics the same way the pre-New Deal Irish, Italians, Germans and Russians did. In California, for example, the political clout of immigrants is growing steadily:
“[T]he transformation of California politics unleashed by the entry of immigrants into politics — a transformation that a Schwarzenegger victory can delay but not deny — is already responsible for enactment of the first paid family-leave program in the land and the likely enactment (if, as expected, Davis signs the bill this week) of mandated employer-financed health coverage. In this, California’s new immigrants are following the path laid out by the immigrant activists of the last century, who provided much of the vision and support for the policies that became the core of the New Deal. Like their predecessors, they are not just pounding on the doors of American society but defining it for the better.”
As always, views differ on what constitutes “for the better.” Writing for National Review Online, Mark Krikorian says Meyerson’s arguments are an indication that the Left “sees mass immigration as a way to promote more socialism.” But what bugs him most is the analogy with Freedom Rides at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the 1960s:
“…the very fact that illegal aliens are hijacking the terminology of a brave struggle for liberty by American citizens is an abomination. The real Freedom Riders traveled the South to challenge Jim Crow segregation in restrooms, restaurants, and other public facilities; a mob in Alabama attacked them, set one of the buses on fire, and beat some of the fleeing passengers. Other Civil Rights protesters, of course, faced police dogs, high-pressure hoses, and firebombs. The idea that lobbying for amnesty is in any way comparable to this is ludicrous…”
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, an original Freedom Rider, disagrees:
“Like the Freedom Rides of 1961, Freedom Ride 2003 calls on ordinary people to do extraordinary things: to put their bodies on the line at a moment in American history when immigration is a volatile issue everywhere; to stand up for their rights and the rights of many others; to call attention to bad laws that harm good people; and to challenge the federal government to act where it seems determined not to. In this, and in so many other ways, these new Freedom Riders are just like you and me — seekers after the American dream, makers of the American dream.”
The NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Southern Christian Leadership Council all appeared on the list of endorsers of the new Freedom Ride. Black leaders, including Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, rallied with the immigrant workers in New York. Kirkorian says that African Americans actually don’t want increased immigration, even if the black “political elite” does:
“[T]he disconnect between the black political elite and the people it claims to represent is nowhere wider than on immigration. A Zogby poll taken shortly before 9/11 found that blacks opposed an illegal-alien amnesty at about the same rate as whites and Hispanics. And a September Field Poll in California found that a majority of blacks opposed driver’s licenses for illegal aliens.”
W. James Antle, writing for the conservative web site TooGood Reports, says that liberals should in fact oppose increased immigration:
“In fact, those who are concerned about racial equality and improved race relations have ample reason to oppose mass legal and illegal immigration. The current system amounts to the importation of cheap, disproportionately minority labor for the benefit of corporations and a disproportionately white upper class in need of domestic service. In the process, many lower-income Americans, also disproportionately minority, find themselves displaced from jobs and their wages reduced.”
Not only will more immigration hurt the poor, Antle argues, it will harm race relations by giving fodder to white nationalists (as if they ever needed any):
“This portends an unmistakable risk of polarizing society along racial lines. Carol M. Swain, professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University and the author of The New White Nationalism: Its Challenge to Integration, considers it likely to be a factor in the advancement of a harmful trend toward white racial nationalism. Do we really need an American Jean-Marie Le Pen or a more widely accepted David Duke?”
Both Antle and Kirkorian underplay the real contribution legal and illegal immigrants make to American society. Bill Berkowitz writes on TomPaine.com that “Latinos make up a disproportionate percentage of the lowest ranks in the armed services. And now they also make up a disproportionate number of the wounded and dying in Iraq.” For the military, immigrants – both illegal and legal – are key targets of recruitment:
“Both citizens and non-citizens are seen as fertile ground. While both groups face the growing lack of employment opportunities, non-citizens are being induced into the military with promises of a fast track to citizenship. The Bush administration has told non-citizens they can apply for citizenship the day they join instead of waiting the usual five years after receiving their green card. Between 35,000 and 40,000 non-citizens — most of them Latino — are currently enlisted, and recruiters have reportedly even crossed into Mexico looking for U.S. school dropouts who still carry U.S. residency papers.”
Factor in the economic contribution immigrants make, the measly compensation they receive, the legal hassles they face, and the conditions in which they work — and one might conclude that immigrants, legal and illegal, have a right to be heard.