The Road to Citizenship

Immigrants and unions get on the same bus

David Moberg

Fifteen years ago, 43-year old Jose Gomez, fearing for his life, fled civil warfare in his native El Salvador and found asylum in the United States. Gomez works as a steward at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, where he and fellow workers have been on strike since June, fighting wage and benefit cuts. But because he doesn’t have permanent residence status, he hasn’t been able to visit his family in El Salvador or arrange to bring them here. He lives and works in limbo.

Gomez’s problems are common among the 18 million foreign-born workers in the United States, about one-eighth of the workforce. As immigration has escalated in recent decades, especially from Latin America and Asia, American policies have failed to adapt to the growing importance of immigrants in American society—including the 9 million out of 34 million foreign-born residents of the United States who lack proper documents and are here illegally, according to an Urban Institute estimate.

In late September, Gomez will join nearly 1,000 other immigrants and their supporters from around the country for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a union-led campaign to build public support for immigrant rights.

The Freedom Ride buses will be making stops in more than 80 cities in 30 states before converging in Washington and then New York City for an October 4 rally that could number a couple hundred thousand.

Initiated by Gomez’s own Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union, the Freedom Ride aims to recover some of the progress toward a more rational and humane immigration policy that was drastically reversed in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The riders hope to make the rights of immigrants a broad-based campaign for civil rights and an issue in the 2004 election.

“It’s important to put immigration on the national agenda again,” says Eliseo Medina, Service Employees union (SEIU) vice-president. “It gives us the opportunity to go out and have a discussion with America.”

Immigrants are concerned with issues of legalization and education, he says, but neither political party has clearly demonstrated a meaningful commitment. “It’s not good enough to say a few words in Spanish,” Medina says. “Are Democrats going to speak to this? Is there a plan? Will President Bush do it? It’s not enough to wear cowboy boots and say I’m from a border state and understand Latinos.”

Freedom Ride organizers are advocating for an amnesty of immigrants who are already here. In 1986, Congress provided amnesty and a road to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but also attempted to crack down on illegal immigrants at work. Now, Freedom Riders want immigration policies that support reunification of families and unequivocally protect immigrants’ rights in the workplace. Although the Republican Congress will not be passing progressive immigration legislation anytime soon, the Freedom Ride campaign reflects the growing worldwide movement of individuals transforming traditional ideas of citizenship by claiming universal human and workplace rights that transcend national boundaries.

In the ’80s, the AFL-CIO supported anti-immigrant legislation in an effort to protect American workers from competition from low-wage “illegal aliens.” But in February 2000, the labor movement reversed course. Reflecting the experience of unions like HERE, SEIU, UNITE (the historic garment and textile union), and the Laborers, the AFL-CIO argued for action to expand immigrant rights and organize them into unions. Today, these same unions hope that the Freedom Ride will resonate in immigrant communities and get immigrants involved in both unions and politics.


Immigrant workers, especially those without proper papers, are more easily intimidated and abused, and as a result of their powerlessness, employers frequently exploit them. That exploitation, in turn, drives down wages for other workers.

A recent study by UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center found that concentration of new, especially Latin American, immigrants in an industry depresses wages. When recent Latino male immigrants make up 15 percent or more of a particular occupation, the study concluded, wages are driven down substantially for other minority workers, including both long-established Latino and black workers.

In many cases, the new, more poorly paid immigrants displace African-Americans, for example, in hotels, construction, meatpacking and other industries. Employers often play off one ethnic group against another. This is an increasingly common practice in poultry plants in the South, where newer Guatemalan immigrants are pitted against older immigrants from Mexico as well as blacks.

But the new immigrants, despite their vulnerability, are often willing to organize, as UNITE has found with laundry workers nationwide, the Roofers Union with home-construction workers in Arizona, Laborers with asbestos remediation workers in New York and New Jersey, and SEIU with its Justice for Janitors campaign. After years of successful organizing, SEIU used its increased control over local building service labor markets to win substantial wage and benefit gains for janitors around the country this year despite rising unemployment rates. In other cases, like the Guatemalan workers at a North Carolina poultry plant described in Leon Fink’s new book, Maya of Morganton, immigrant workers organize themselves. If immigrants come to identify gaining their rights with the power of collective action rather than as a purely individual accomplishment, they are more likely to develop a progressive view of politics.

Despite the tensions that have developed between African-Americans and expanding new immigrant groups, the Freedom Ride has explicitly tied itself to the civil rights freedom rides of the ’50s and ’60s. An array of religious groups, such as Rainbow/PUSH coalition, have endorsed the ride. At a Chicago rally to build support, Denise Dixon, the African-American leader of Chicago’s chapter of ACORN, a heavily black, low-income community group, explained why she was going to be a freedom rider. “As long as working people let immigrants be harassed and intimidated, it keeps wages down for everybody,” Dixon told the crowd. “I don’t know about you, but I want to make some money.”

In Illinois, where immigrantion has increased rapidly, organizing for the Freedom Ride has brought together immigrant groups and unions that had until recently pursued independent, even conflicting, strategies. The Bush administration’s harsh policies towards immigrants have also convinced groups that they must work together. The detentions and deportations of Arab and Muslim immigrants, the prohibition of immigrants from holding airport security jobs, and tougher restrictions on students have received wide attention. But other policies—rationalized as in the interest of national security—have hit immigrant workers hard. Raids on airports, the Air Force Academy, and office buildings housing restaurants (like the Sears Towers) have led to the detention—and frequently deportation—of thousands of workers for immigration infractions. Last year the Bush administration sent out an unprecedented flood of letters to employers about workers whose Social Security numbers didn’t match their names. Some workers were frightened into quitting. In some cases, employers abused the “no match” letters to inappropriately threaten or dismiss workers—leading to successful protests at both unionized and unorganized Hilton hotels in Chicago.

The Supreme Court also ruled in its Hoffman Plastics decision last year that an undocumented immigrant who was illegally fired for union activity in an organizing drive was not eligible for back pay because he was in the United States without proper papers, leading to fears that courts and legislators would further deprive immigrant workers of legal protections. In a few cases, immigrants have been ruled ineligible for workers compensation, a particularly grievous action since Latino males are 2.5 times more likely to die on the job than other workers.

When Bush first entered office, he seemed interested in moving towards a new immigration policy, especially with Mexico, the largest source of recent immigration. But Republicans are divided on the issue. Free-market, pro-business conservatives saw open immigration as providing a supply of low paid workers that would suppress wages, while cultural conservatives, with their nativist suspicion of all that is foreign, opposed expanding immigrant rights. For their part, many corporations supported new “guestworker” programs that would regulate immigration by permitting businesses to bring in workers for specific jobs.

After September 11, Bush lost all interest in immigration reform, and a growing popular movement was dampened. But the political volatility of immigrant rights had already been demonstrated. In California, Democrats won control of the state, in part, because in 1994, Latinos (and other immigrants) mobilized against the Republican-supported Proposition 187 that denied undocumented immigrants many public services. But immigration issues are not just important in the major centers of immigration. In Chicago’s suburbs, for example, Latino factory workers who migrated to jobs in suburban locations and south Asian tech employees who first settled in the suburbs, may have played a role in shifting control of the Illinois state legislature and governor’s office to the Democrats in 2002.

With progress at the national level stymied, immigrant rights groups have focused thir efforts at the state and local level—opposing Bush administration efforts to make local agencies enforcers of immigration law, making driver’s licenses available to immigrants even without social security numbers (approved in September by the California legislature), and ensuring that children of undocumented illegal immigrants are eligible for in-state tuition (approved overwhelmingly this past May in Illinois, for example). In some cities, day laborers have won establishment of workers centers to make their job hunt more humane. In Chicago, however, the city recently destroyed an improvised hiring center despite laborers efforts to negotiate with a hostile city council member.

Winning the political allegiance of new immigrants could determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the government in many states. Yet it is not clear which party will prevail, despite the Democratic advantage among Mexicans, by far the largest immigrant group.

“We’re not taking for granted this is a Democratic issue,” said HERE Local 1 president Henry Tamarin. “Let the parties compete for the voters.” While some conservative Republicans have recently led anti-immigrant initiatives, other Republicans favor expanded immigration and have proposed legislation designed to win immigrant support. In the U.S. Senate, conservative Republican Orrin Hatch has joined liberal Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin to co-sponsor legislation to encourage states to grant immigrant youth in-state tuition. But backlash is also playing a role in the California recall election. As anti-immigration forces have attacked Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamente, pro-immigrant groups have criticized Arnold Schwarzeneggar, and Gov. Gray Davis has reached out to immigrants, reversing his earlier position on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Slightly more than a third of new immigrants are naturalized citizens who can vote, but their numbers will grow sharply in the future as more immigrants become naturalized. Unions like HERE, UNITE and SEIU are mobilizing immigrant workers for political work even when they can’t personally vote. But the political impact of this new movement will depend partly on whether immigrant rights becomes an issue with which workers who are citizens can identify.

The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride “is a huge step forward for people who care about immigrants,” says Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights executive director Josh Hoyt. “There will be no progress unless there’s a serious coalition between immigrants rights, community groups and organized labor. This has created a fantastic vehicle for doing that. But I don’t think there will be serious progress for immigrants, especially the undocumented, until their struggle becomes a civil rights struggle. We won’t win major progress because Bush and [Mexican president Vicente] Fox ride horses together, but because immigrants and their allies force it.”

Organizers are hopeful despite the setbacks of the past two years. “The immigrant freedom ride is not the end. It’s the beginning of the next phase of struggle for immigrant worker rights,” says the SEIU’s Medina. “I think it’s going to spark a whole new wave of interest in organizing in the community and workplace. This immigrant freedom ride is going to be like a match on a dry plain. It will spread everywhere.”

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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