Nearly 40 years ago, hundreds of volunteers traveled on buses throughout the South, speaking out against racial segregation. Known as "freedom riders," these men and women often encountered violence and arrest.
Today, a new brand of "freedom riders" will arrive in Durham as part of a nationwide Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a two week-long bus tour planned by many advocacy groups to bring attention to the plight of immigrant workers in the United States.
Ivan Parra, director of the statewide Latino Community Development Center, said the tour is meant to bring attention to unfair immigration policies.
"We are hoping to create awareness of the system that is not working," he said.
The Durham rally will begin at 4:30 p.m. today at the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Building and will feature speeches by farm workers and community leaders. After the rally, the group will hold a meeting at the Immaculate Conception Church.
Although the riders do not endorse any specific legislation, their ultimate goals include creating a process to naturalize immigrant workers who have worked in the country for a certain amount of time, reuniting families by streamlining immigration policies and ensuring that immigrant workers are treated equally under the law.
Durham is just one of many cities these "freedom riders" are visiting. There are nine buses carrying 1,000 immigrant workers--including some undocumented workers--and 100 stops are planned for the whole tour. Tour organizers even routed two buses through border patrol checkpoints where federal authorities detained the buses for several hours Friday.
Margie Klein, an advocate with Jews for Equal Rights for Immigrant Communities, a group supporting the freedom ride, said the riders are a diverse crowd, composed of both immigrant workers and supporters from all backgrounds.
"A large percentage are immigrants," Klein said. "And a third are undocumented workers who are taking a courageous risk of being deported by coming on the ride."
Many of the immigrants workers are Latinos--an immigrant group that is rapidly becoming more prominent in Durham and the state as a whole. Latinos made up 7.6 percent of the population of Durham County in 2000, according to the U.S. Census.
Parra said current immigration policies are detrimental both to the economy and to the immigrant worker population.
"There is a need for many jobs in this economy that immigrants are willing to take," he said. "We're all hoping that the hard-working immigrants that are needed by this economy have an opportunity to regularize their status."
In Durham, there has been concern in the immigrant community that the city staff will act as immigration enforcement agents, Parra said. Many fear that housing inspectors, police officers and emergency personnel will report them to immigration authorities. Parra said that it is important that the "trust we have built with the immigrant community and city government stays in place."
Parra added that immigrants often face discrimination and that the system is continuing to push many of them toward second-class status in their communities.
"After Sept. 11, there's been an increasing anti-immigrant feeling in this country, which is somewhat understandable," Parra said. "But immigrants are not terrorists. Many of us are here to work and to contribute and to support our families back home."
Parra noted, however, that constructive legislation for immigrant workers is in the works. He said negotiations between labor unions and major agricultural employers have led to a "historical" agreement. "It would create a legalization program for farm workers in the United States--a compromise that would apply to workers in the agricultural industry," Parra said. Several representatives have proposed the program in Congress.
Like Klein, Parra ultimately focused on first bringing attention to the plight of immigrant workers rather than specific legislative steps--something toward which the hundreds of undocumented workers traveling across the country right now are working.
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