Immigrants rally to plead for rights

Cross-country bus riders join thousands in N.Y. to request legal status

October 05, 2003|By John J. Goldman | John J. Goldman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK - Completing bus journeys throughout the United States modeled on the Freedom Rides that fought segregation in the South, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in a New York yesterday to urge stronger rights for immigrants.

The demonstration in Flushing Meadows Park was designed to heighten awareness of the plight of immigrants who are seeking a clear path to citizenship, to reunite with their families and greater protection in the workplace.

"When I was 21 years old, I got on a bus in Washington, D.C. There were 13 of us. We traveled to the South to bring down those signs that say `white man' and `colored man,' `white women' and `colored women,'" Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, told a cheering crowd.

"In 1961, 42 years ago, we won," he said.

"Forty-two years later, the Freedom Riders of 2003, you are going to win because you are right," Lewis told the rally. "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be very proud of every one of you for being here today."

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, told the crowd it was making history and "making our country better."

The gathering was sponsored by a broad coalition of labor unions, immigrant rights organizations and church groups. They have said a key goal has been to draw more immigrants into the labor movement and gain legal status for millions of undocumented workers.

"We cannot go on simply ignoring or tolerating the plight of those brothers and sisters of ours," said Cardinal Edward Egan, leader of the New York Archdiocese.

Many speakers urged the defeat of President Bush in next year's election. An organizer for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is seeking the Democratic Party's nomination, passed out literature pledging support for immigrant workers.

Signs held by people proclaimed "Justice, Amnesty, Liberty" and "Stand for the American Dream."

"No human being in the sight of God is illegal," the Rev. James Lawson, a 1961 Freedom Rider and a colleague of King, told the crowd. "No human being in the sight of God is undocumented."

Lawson, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was the closing speaker.

"Every boy and every girl and every man and every woman - no matter from what country, what creed, what language, what culture, what color - every man and every woman has a right for jobs with dignity, for safety at work, for families being united and able to support themselves and sustain themselves in a living and meaningful fashion," he said.

Three buses from Los Angeles crossed the country as part of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

Many at the rally, who held up the flags of their native countries, belong to New York labor unions. For some, it was a time for memories of events more than four decades past.

"Freedom Summer, I was in Jackson, Miss., and I remember riding through towns in the Delta and seeing all of the vestiges of the racism that existed and see people whom I knew get locked up, be put in jail, be brutalized," recalled Oliver Gray, 62, a New York City municipal union official. "People died that summer."

Gray also attended the March on Washington in 1963, where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

"You know what was important about that march?" he said. "When I stood there and saw the people from all across the country coming into the city of Washington and after they assembled on the Mall, I realized that we were not alone, that it was a real movement, there was a fight and people had been at it for a long time."

"To see that build over the years to result in legislation was great," Gray said. "But part of the problem that was never addressed was the economic part, and that's that we're beginning to look at, I hope."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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