A Push for Immigrant Workers’ Rights

By Anya Kamenetz

Published August 29, 2003, issue of August 29, 2003.
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On May 4, 1961, members of the Congress of Racial Equality set out on a public bus from Washington to integrate interstate transportation through the Freedom Ride. Confronting angry mobs, the Freedom Riders — with notable numbers of Jews among them — protested segregation in the Deep South.

On September 20, 2003, the first Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride will set out from cities across the nation — Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Chicago, Houston, Miami and Boston — and converge two weeks later in Washington. The nine buses will carry immigrant workers and their allies in a new push for equal rights, improved work conditions and — for illegal immigrants — amnesty and a path toward legal residency and citizenship. And, if Abigail Levine of San Francisco has her way, there will be a significant number of Jews on the buses, just as in 1961.

Levine, an organizer for Oakland’s Local 2850 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, founded Jews for Equal Rights for Immigrant Communities in May. Members of the group, known as Jerico, are joining the Freedom Rides and hope to rekindle Jewish labor passions along the way.

“I have always been moved by the possibility of Jews working for social justice,” said Levine, 24. And it seems she’s not the only one. She has attracted funding for the rides from several Jewish foundations, including the Shefa Fund and the Jewish Fund for Justice. “This is an opportunity to really make the connection,” Levine said. “The message is that we as Jews are going to support the immigrants’ rights movement both as a religious imperative — you shall remember that you were strangers in Egypt — and because of our immigrant history, which in many cases is only one to three generations away.”

“The Jewish history is absolutely electric,” said Charney Bromberg, a former member of the Congress of Racial Equality who spent 1965 to 1967 in Mississippi as a civil rights worker and who is now executive director of Meretz USA.

“If it weren’t for Jewish immigrants in the labor movement, so much of what we accept more broadly as democratic values wouldn’t be there,” he said, referring to immigrant Jewish labor activists like Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, and Rose Schneiderman of the Women’s Trade Union League.

“The civil rights movement [was] built in part through the black and Jewish workers’ rights movements of the 1930s. It is absolutely world-shattering what transpired,” Bromberg said. “Without those unions, you wouldn’t have had the strength to create the civil rights movement. So it all links up in the circle of time.”

There are 30 million immigrants in the United States, according to Vernon M. Briggs Jr., a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. Each year, Levine said, nearly 1 million arrive, and, of these, roughly one-third have no papers. After an extensive study of Labor Department and census numbers, Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies reported in 2001 that there may be as many as 11 million undocumented workers in the United States, several million more than estimated by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the INS).

Even among those with documentation, many overstay tourist or student visas, slipping into undocumented status. Large numbers of immigrant workers end up in the service industry, where organized labor is weakest, Levine said. Union membership has fallen from its all-time high of roughly 30% of the labor force in 1965 to only 13.5%, according to Briggs. While unionization has fallen, immigration has soared; some 10% of the population is now non-native-born — a considerable rise from its historic low of 4.4% in 1965.

The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride (www.iwfr.org) includes stops in dozens of communities from Walla Walla, Wash., to Shelbyville, Ky., before meeting with members of Congress in Washington on October 2. The trip concludes with a mass rally in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, N.Y., on October 4. The Freedom Riders are traveling with the endorsement of hundreds of community groups, union chapters, religious groups and elected officials like Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante of California and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a leader of the original Freedom Rides.

Levine has at least nine Jewish activists in their 20s signed up to ride the buses and expects more to get on board — or at least attend the rally in New York and activities along the way. The Jerico riders will spend the High Holy Days with congregations on the road — Levine describes the group as “post-denominational” — and have developed original educational materials on Judaism and social justice for study during and after the ride. Speakers are scheduled at stops along the route, including a September 21 kickoff event in San Francisco with Carol Ruth Silver, an original Freedom Rider, and an October 1 event with Rabbi David Saperstein of the Washington-based Religious Action Center and Maria Elena Durazo, another Freedom Rider and a union leader.

Organizers cite four main issues on the Freedom Ride agenda. The first is a “road to citizenship,” with clearer steps to follow for immigrants who already work and pay taxes to gain a green card. The second is family reunification — to help bring workers’ family members still living in their native countries to the United States; there are decade-long waiting lists for some countries. The third is a bid for workplace rights regardless of immigration status, an issue of concern since a 2002 Supreme Court decision found that an immigrant worker with false documents could be denied back pay. The final issue, civil rights and civil liberties, was added in recent months in response to immigrants being detained and deported in federal terrorism investigations.

A coalition of unions, including the AFL, Service Employees International Union, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, and the United Farm Workers, have committed both money and staff to the project. The campaign represents a major shift for the labor movement, which historically has endorsed protectionist measures to prevent employers from hiring lower-wage, no-benefit immigrants. But in February 2000 the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO reversed its stance on immigration, proclaiming that it “proudly stands on the side of immigrant workers.” The new policy seems to be: If you can’t beat, ’em, get ’em to join.

Of course, immigration is a touchy subject these days — especially when it comes to illegal immigrants, and the rides are likely to excite some controversy. Levine admits that her efforts have already met with some criticism.

“The most common question we get is, ‘Why should we help these people who have come here without papers?’” Levine said. “But I know anecdotally that a lot of my Jewish friends had grandparents who came over illegally.”

Jewish support for illegal immigrants, however, is by no means a given, especially in the post-September 11 world. While the American Jewish Committee’s most recent statements on immigration reaffirmed support for “fair and generous policies,” including family reunification, civil rights and government benefits for illegal immigrants, its 2002 survey on Jewish life showed that 43% of American Jews favored increased restrictions on immigration.

“What we’re fighting for is a sane immigration policy that actually takes account of the numbers” of illegal workers, Levine said. This could take the form of an amnesty for undocumented workers, a measure President Bush discussed with President Vicente Fox of Mexico in the summer of 2001 but backed away from.

Paula Winicki, an Argentine Jew who emigrated three years ago from Buenos Aires, is now a union organizer in San Francisco. When she heard about the Freedom Ride, she knew she had join. “My grandpa passed away two months ago, and I was not able to go back [to Argentina] to see him,” she said, referring to the difficulties she would have faced with her green card application had she tried to re-enter the United States.

“I just thought, enough is enough,” Winicki said. “I have hope that this effort will change the lives of many people. As Jews we know what it means to suffer, and we should join this fight. It’s our fight too.”

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