`Freedom ride' rallies for immigrants

Effort backs amnesty, in-state tuition in city stop

October 02, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

As an immigrant workers "freedom ride" passed through Baltimore yesterday, participants demonstrated for privileges such as amnesty for illegal immigrants and in-state college tuition rates for foreign-born students.

"My legal status will not allow me to accomplish my dreams," said Maria Blas, a Mexican native who lives in Shakopee, Minn., told the cheering crowd of about 200 people at the University of Maryland Law School Plaza. "I do not deserve to be punished for being here."

The mainly Spanish-speaking group was part of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a nationwide demonstration backed by labor unions. About 900 immigrants from around the country are traveling in 18 buses to Washington, D.C.

The immigrants will lobby elected officials tomorrow on issues such as amnesty, strengthening labor protections, changing laws to allow immigrant families to be reunited with relatives left behind and granting in-state tuition rates to foreign-born students.

In-state rates are normally reserved for students who are U.S. citizens. In Maryland, immigrants who have come here legally but are not U.S. citizens are not eligible for in-state tuition.

Rosalia Rojas, a Mexico native who is a junior at Patterson High School in Baltimore, said she would not be able to attend college if she has to pay out-of-state rates. "My family couldn't afford it," she said.

The group will then go to New York for a rally Saturday. A group advocating for tighter border controls is planning a counter-rally tomorrow in New Jersey.

The immigrants spent most of their time yesterday advocating for in-state tuition, a proposal that was contentious in Maryland during the last legislative session.

The House of Delegates passed a bill this year that would have allowed students who have attended a state public school for at least three years and graduated to be eligible for in-state tuition. Maryland residents pay about $7,000 a year less than out-of-state students, a sum that many immigrant families say they cannot afford.

The bill was vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Several states - including California, New York and Utah - have passed laws that allow immigrant students who have lived in the state for at least three years to pay discounted rates at state colleges.

But leaders said yesterday that they would continue to push for an in-state tuition bill.

"There's no more critically important issue than to address the status of hard-working and law-abiding citizens, and improve their lives. Going to college is an important step for them," said Tom Perez, a Montgomery County Council member.

"We are the new face of America ... and we need to go to college," said state Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Democrat who represents the 40th District.

The freedom ride buses have visited nearly 100 sites throughout the country - many in the South, where the original Freedom Rides took place in 1961 to protest segregation. Civil rights activists at the time encountered violence, as one bus was firebombed and several riders were assaulted.

The newest freedom rides have been violence-free, although two buses leaving from Los Angeles were stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol near El Paso, Texas, on Sept. 26. None of the immigrants onboard was detained.

Organizers are quick to point out that some of the riders are illegal immigrants, who face being deported.

But riders said any risk is worth it.

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