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Tour focuses on immigrant workers' impact

Staff Writer

Two buses carrying about 50 people apiece will roll into town at about noon tomorrow, part of a 12-day journey to raise awareness of the plight of immigrant workers.

The Nashville stopover is part of the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride, a push launched in 10 cities last week. Travelers along the 10 different routes will converge in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday and then head for New York City, where a massive rally is planned Saturday.

The focus is to secure a better life for the nation's growing immigrant population, said local organizer Mario Ramos, a Nashville attorney who specializes in immigration law.

Exact figures on Nashville's immigrant population are not available. But according to U.S. Census figures, Tennessee had the sixth-fastest growth in foreign-born residents between 1990 and 2000. There were 159,000 foreign-born inhabitants in 2000, up 169% from 1990.

Ramos estimates that the Hispanic community alone is at more than 10% of the population in the Nashville area.

Immigrant workers have had a major impact on the work force, especially in the construction industry, said Soumen Ghosh, a Tennessee State University economist and director of the school's Office of Business and Economic Research.

There are 31,600 people employed in construction jobs in the eight-county Nashville Metropolitan Statistical Area last month, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More than half of the jobs in the housing industry are likely held by immigrant workers, Ghosh said. A majority of housing subcontractors also are owned by immigrants, he said.

Construction has been one of the bright spots of the local economy, but without immigrant workers willing to work for low wages with little or no benefits, the story could have been different, Ghosh said.

"They have kept the costs still modest," he said.

A coalition of labor and community groups, civil rights activists and business interests are participating in the rally. Their goal is to change U.S. policy that allows undocumented workers to gain legal residency, reunite families that are separated by the immigration policy and give the workers a voice in their workplace.

"It's about basic civil rights," said Jerry Lee, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, which oversees the efforts of labor unions in the state and a supporter of the drive.

"This is a nation of immigrants," Lee said. "It always has been, and it always will be. There's always been a struggle between the different ethnic groups, but we're always going to be a nation of immigrants. If we embrace these folks, it can only better the whole country."

Wages and benefits are a big part of the drive's effort. Organizers want to bring the issue of undocumented workers into the open and begin a national debate on legalization that was all but stalled after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The buses scheduled to stop in town tomorrow began their ride in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

In Nashville, events start at noon tomorrow on the Metro Courthouse steps, where riders and local leaders will speak for about an hour. Participants will then march to Capitol Hill Baptist Church, where they will meet for lunch and discussions. At 3 p.m., they'll march to the downtown library, where discussions on civil rights history will ensue until 5 p.m. At 5:30 p.m. there will be another march from the Shelby Avenue Bridge to the park across from the Country Music Hall of Fame downtown. A rally begins in the park at 6:30 p.m.