Sept. 24, 2003, 1:12AM

Getting back on the bus this time for immigrants Houston group will join Freedom Rides


Henrietta Castillo came to Texas from Mexico in 1971, nearly a decade after the civil rights movement reached its peak.

But like hundreds of other Houston Hispanics joining the immigrant rights activists, Castillo now draws inspiration from the earlier civil rights struggle led by blacks.

"We see what (African-Americans) did, which was very honorable," said Castillo, an unemployed factory worker who will join a bus ride to Washington later this week designed after the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s. "They showed us that with sacrifice, you can win."

Organizers of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride had a blessing for the riders Tuesday night at the Catholic Charismatic Center, including songs from a black choir and a prayer from a Southern Baptist minister.

Driving home the links between civil rights and immigrant rights, the ceremony ended with the audience of about 300 people singing a rendition of We Shall Overcome in English and Spanish.

Two buses carrying about 80 people will leave Houston on Friday morning, joining buses from 15 other cities for a demonstration in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 1. The buses will then go to New York for another rally Oct. 4.

Along the way, the bus leaving Houston will stop to visit important sites from the earlier civil rights struggle, including Selma, Ala.

Sponsors of the event, including the AFL-CIO and other unions, bill the freedom bus ride as "the most significant national mobilization for immigration reform in the nation's history."

Besides pushing for increased civil rights for immigrant workers, the movement seeks some form of amnesty to legalize the 8 million or more immigrants who live in the country illegally.

Organizers sought the approval and even some guidance from leaders of the original Freedom Rides, which began when Anglos and blacks boarded buses in the North and rode into the South to challenge segregation.

Latinos recently overtook blacks as the largest minority group in America, and relations between leaders of the two groups have not always been perfect. But the immigrant bus ride goes forward with the support of important black leaders and organizations, including the NAACP.

Some blacks in the audience Tuesday said they are honored by the recognition of their earlier struggle.

"It's feeding off of something positive from the past and making it new," said Raymond Rhodes, whose mother-in-law will join the ride along with other black union leaders.

"There are a lot of parallels" between the plight of blacks of decades past and the immigrant workers of today, said Richard Shaw, secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO in Houston, which has helped organize the national Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. "You have a group of people who are living here and working here and contributing, and they are not being recognized."

Castillo said she moved to Texas from Mexico more than 30 years ago. She worked as an electronics assembler and a cashier at a retail store until she was injured recently.

"I didn't have insurance, and I didn't have disability" coverage, she said. "That's why this (Freedom Ride) is so important."


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Sept. 23, 2003, 8:27PM

Labor, farmer groups agree on immigrant worker plan3

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The agricultural industry and farm worker advocates have agreed to a legislative proposal that would allow about 500,000 undocumented immigrant farm workers already in the country to become legal residents and make employing farm labor easier.

The groups, which for years have fought over wages and working conditions, hailed the proposal. The bill could help ensure a stable work force for the nation's farms, while also bringing undocumented farm workers and their families "out of the shadows," said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, one of the sponsors.

"Time is running out for American agriculture, farm workers and consumers. What was a problem years ago is a crisis today and will be a catastrophe if we do not act immediately," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, another sponsor, along with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif.

About 7 million undocumented immigrants, mostly from Mexico, are believed to be in the United States. U.S. negotiations with Mexico for an agreement on hiring migrant workers stalled after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when U.S. focus shifted to enhancing border security to prevent the entry of terrorists.

The agriculture proposal would reform the H2A visa program, under which agriculture employers can hire immigrants as temporary farmhands after showing they can't find U.S. workers. Growers have often complained that the program is too bureaucratic and burdensome.

The legislation would ease some of the program's rules. The bill also proposes to freeze wages for certain farm workers for three years at the level in place on Jan. 1, 2003, while Congress studies what their pay should be.

The bill would allow eligible undocumented workers already in the United States to apply for temporary worker status. Their spouses and children also would be allowed to stay in the United States, but could not work. Eventually, after a longer period of work, these workers and their families would be eligible for permanent residency.

Immigrants not already in the country would be allowed come to the United States as temporary workers for up to three years. After that they would have to return to their country of origin.

Farm worker advocates have pushed for years for legalization to help protect workers from abuse and exploitation.

The new bill, Arturo Rodriguez, United Farm Workers president said, "grants freedom from fear to hundreds of thousands of the hardest-working, lowest-paid, tax-paying workers in America."


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Oct. 6, 2003, 7:48PM

The influence of immigrants in our politics


"Being a foreigner, being an immigrant," Elia Kazan, the great Turkish-born, Anatolian Greek director who died last month, once mused. "I mean, I wasn't in the society. I was rebellious against it."

The irony, of course, is that Kazan virtually defined our national culture at the midpoint of the 20th century, directing such quintessentially American classics as Death of a Salesman and On the Waterfront. Which should hardly be surprising. The immigrant rebellion against American society that Kazan claimed to personify has been most typically a struggle against those who would keep immigrants at society's margins. From the Irish of the 1840s to the Latin Americans, Asians and Africans of today, the object of this least threatening of rebellions has been to secure the right to become an American -- to speak not only to the nation but for it.

That's certainly the goal of the roughly 500 immigrants who pulled into Washington this week on buses that brought them here from as far away as Seattle and Los Angeles. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Riders, as they call themselves, traveled across the country to dramatize their claim to full rights from the nation that they are helping to build.

This week, the bus riders will become citizen (and non-citizen) lobbyists on Capitol Hill. They want immigrants already working in the States to be able gain legal residency and a path toward citizenship and to be able to bring their spouses and children here as well.

Unlike their predecessors in the earlier great waves of immigration to the United States, huge numbers of the immigrants who've come here in the past 25 years have done so outside the law. The American economy beckoned them, but the polity -- as was not the case when the Irish, Italians, Germans and Russians came here -- has not. For the first time in American history, then, we have a huge immigrant population -- the 2000 Census says that 12.4 percent of the national work force is immigrant -- permanently consigned not even to second-class citizenship but no citizenship at all.

And yet, as these lobbyists make clear, a growing number of these non-citizen Americans are finding ways to openly influence public policy even if they can't vote. This week in California, as the recall contest comes down to its final day, the largest get-out-the-vote efforts to keep Gray Davis in office will have been waged by unions, the most active of which have predominantly immigrant memberships.

In Los Angeles, the two most active unions during election season are invariably the janitors of the Service Employees International Union and the waiters and housekeepers of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union. These two locals have played a major role in mobilizing the new immigrant voters who have moved Los Angeles and California to the left over the past decade.

At the moment, the campaign to turn out Latino immigrant voters seems one of the few aspects of the Davis campaign that's going well. Most recent polls have shown California Latinos almost evenly split on the recall, partly because some Latinos want to ax Davis as a way to elect Cruz Bustamante.

But there is a dramatic gap between longtime Latino citizens and more recently arrived immigrant Latino voters, most of whom have registered to vote only since 1994's Proposition 187 threatened to throw the children of the undocumented out of public schools. In polling released last week by a consortium of groups including the Pew Hispanic Center, 51 percent of English-speaking Latino voters wanted to recall Davis, while just 39 percent of Spanish speakers felt the same way. Other polling suggests this gap is far wider.

Much of this difference can be attributed to Davis' having signed legislation permitting undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses. The massive campaign that some unions are waging among Spanish-language voters -- targeting 800,000 of them statewide -- accounts for this gap as well.

The votes of the Spanish-speaking, of course, are nowhere near enough to keep Davis in office, and in this election he may well lose more votes than he gains for having signed that driver's license bill. But as Pete Wilson can attest, and as Karl Rove fears, the Republicans can overplay their hand by campaigning against immigrants.

In the meantime, the transformation of California politics unleashed by the entry of immigrants into politics -- a transformation that an Arnold Schwarzenegger victory can delay but not deny -- is already responsible for enactment of the first paid family-leave program in the land and the likely enactment (if, as expected, Davis signs the bill this week) of mandated employer-financed health coverage. In this, California's new immigrants are following the path laid out by the immigrant activists of the last century, who provided much of the vision and support for the policies that became the core of the New Deal. Like their predecessors, they are not just pounding on the doors of American society but defining it for the better.

Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and political editor of L.A. Weekly.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle