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Hundreds Rally on Behalf of Immigrants

A boisterous crowd helps kick off a campaign calling for legalization of workers.

September 21, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of immigrants and their supporters rallied in Los Angeles on Saturday as part of a new national campaign for immigrant workers inspired by the civil rights bus rides of the 1960s.

The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, first hatched two years ago by labor leaders in Los Angeles, will send out 18 buses from nine cities across the nation this week to Washington, D.C., in a bid to link the struggles of blacks 40 years ago with immigrant workers today.

In the original Freedom Ride of 1961, blacks and whites rode buses across the South to challenge segregation.

Maria Elena Durazo, president of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union Local 11 in Los Angeles, and the ride's national coordinator, said supporters are calling for legalization for the nation's estimated 10 million illegal immigrants, a clear path for them to become U.S. citizens and quicker procedures to reunify families. At Saturday's send-off rally at Los Angeles City Hall, the boisterous crowd waved orange balloons, American flags and union banners.

With noisy chants in English and Spanish, the rally featured a parade of politicians, religious leaders, labor organizers and multicultural entertainers ranging from Chinese lion dancers to African American gospel singers.

"At the heart of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was the notion that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," said the Rev. James Lawson Jr., one of the original freedom riders and president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who spoke Saturday.

But the freedom ride has drawn critics, who say it is offensive to draw parallels between the struggles of black American citizens and illegal immigrants.

The freedom ride has won the imprimatur of more than 150 civil rights groups, religious leaders -- who will bless the riders Monday at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels -- and many state and local officeholders.

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn presented a proclamation commemorating Saturday as Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride Day.

Rally participants spanned a spectrum of age, occupation, race and national origin.

Ralph Fertig, a USC clinical assistant professor, said his lifelong civil rights activism was nurtured by his Jewish immigrant parents, who fled Nazi Germany and lost several relatives in the Holocaust.

Today, he sees connections between the Jewish experience then and the situation facing illegal immigrants.

"They both represent a denial of fundamental dignity," he said.

Among the 140 riders set to leave Los Angeles on Tuesday is Canadian-born Mar Preston, a researcher in gerontology until she became a community organizer for the campaign to raise wages for Santa Monica workers and saw, as she put it, "the shadows immigrants live in."

Participant Donte Woods is a 26-year-old African American activist with the Community Coalition, a South Los Angeles nonprofit. He said he was joining the ride because he was wasn't around to take part 40 years ago.

"Disenfranchised people are disenfranchised people," he said, "No matter if they're black, white, Asian, Latino or whatever."

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