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Immigration advocates go full steam ahead

A 10-day nationwide journey by train seeks to humanize the debate. Of the 100 riders involved, 25 are Californians.

June 14, 2007|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

One is a white landscaping firm owner who needs immigrant labor. Another is an African American who believes in universal education. A third is a refugee from Vietnam who has experienced firsthand the pain of family separation.

The three Californians joined 22 others Wednesday to launch a 10-day train tour across America to share their stories about why they believe comprehensive immigration reform is needed. The group, which represents a swath of U.S. citizens originally from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, seeks to humanize the immigration debate with personal stories bound by the common immigrant dream of seeking a better life in America for themselves and their families.

"Even though we're all different, we all have the same hopes and desires for us and our children," said Samina Sundas, an immigrant from Pakistan, as riders prepared to leave from Union Station in Los Angeles.

Sundas said the United States offered more opportunity for single mothers like her and that it enabled her to open a preschool business and keep her family afloat after she divorced.

The Dreams Across America Tour, which will take 100 immigrant advocates to Washington, D.C., to share their stories with legislators, will stage rallies along the way as riders are picked up in such cities as San Antonio, Miami, New York, Chicago and Boston. It is being sponsored by a coalition of immigrant rights and labor groups, and religious organizations.

The tour comes as immigration reform legislation is stalled in Congress. A bipartisan Senate bill that would allow the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants to apply for legalization, toughen border security and curtail family visas was sidelined last week.

Several speakers, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, pointed to a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll this week as evidence that the majority of Americans supported legalization of undocumented immigrants. The poll found that a strong majority of Americans surveyed, including two-thirds of Republicans, favored allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens if they pay fines, learn English and meet other conditions.

"We need to understand that because a few have raised ... strident voices, it doesn't mean that they speak for the majority," Mahony said.

Then, raising his hands, he blessed the riders.

The tour marks what promoters say is the first major collaboration between traditional immigrant rights groups and the online and blogger community. At dreamsacrossamericaonline.org, people can follow the train tour, post their own written or video family stories, access data on immigrants, join bloggers on the issue and download a petition calling for comprehensive reform.

The multimedia campaign was spearheaded by Rick Jacobs, the California campaign chairman for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign who was involved in the politician's successful online organizing effort.

Jacobs, the grandson of Jews who escaped Russia because of that nation's anti-Semitic pogroms, said he was aiming to start a national interactive conversation on the issue to show politicians that "real people" support immigration reform.

Some of those who joined the tour Wednesday included Cathy Gurney, a Chico, Calif., landscape company owner and granddaughter of immigrants from Ukraine. Gurney said she feared her business would fail without immigration reform giving her access to greater numbers of legal workers.

Her family business employs about 60 people with pay ranging from $8 to $28 an hour, and offers full health benefits, paid time off and retirement benefits, Gurney said. Yet she has a hard time finding American workers; most of those who answer her ads are immigrants without papers, whom she cannot employ.

"My American dream was to build this business, hand it to my children and spend time with my grandchildren," Gurney said. "Yet if we can't have access to a legal workforce, we'll have to close."

Virginia Franklin is an African American home healthcare worker who said she joined the tour to press for her mother's lifelong dream: universal education. Franklin's mother, a registered nurse who made sure her three children finished college, would have particularly supported proposed measures to allow undocumented college students access to public financial aid, Franklin said. The Baldwin Hills resident has now taken up that mantle.

Although some African Americans have objected to illegal immigrants, saying they are taking jobs from blacks, Franklin disagreed. "The jobs are out there," she said. "Whoever wants to work, go get their behinds up and get a job."

Another rider, Los Angeles educator Harris Luu, escaped from Vietnam with his grandparents as a child in 1975. His father was killed in the war and his mother was left behind, not informed by his grandparents that they were leaving.

The painful separation and tense reunion 14 years later have given him firsthand experiences that illustrate the importance of keeping family reunification a major component of the U.S. immigration system, he said.

Jules Boyele, a Congolese native who was granted political asylum in the 1990s, said he joined the tour to publicize the real faces of immigrants in America.

He asked Americans to consider the reasons why people feel forced into the difficult decision to leave their homelands: political repression, abject poverty, hopeless futures for their children.

"Immigrants are criminalized, portrayed as bad people invading America," Boyele said. "But we come here to work hard, help this country and find a better life."

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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