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Immigrant freedom riders seek 'road map' for better life

Staff Writer
Nashville FreedomRiders

Nashville stop brings out hundreds

Sylvia Carranza of Los Angeles got on the bus as a way to pay tribute to her immigrant parents.

Federico Gonzalez of Tucson, Ariz., got on the bus as a way to tell the world: ''Hire me, watch me work.''

Genelle Gaudinez, from southern California, got on the bus to remind her how far her immigrant family has come.

The trio is part of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, which began Sept. 23. Across the country a small fleet of buses is taking immigrant workers and activists to Washington and New York City. All the groups will converge for a rally on Saturday in New York City.

Yesterday 100 of the riders stopped in Nashville where they held a rally with local supporters of the city's immigrant community. Like the 1960s freedom riders that banded together to promote civil rights, these 21st century freedom riders also came with an agenda.

''There's four points to what we are talking about,'' Carranza said.

''There are so many injustices we see today. We need a road to citizenship. We need to stop a backlog on the application process for work permits and citizenship. We want our families to be reunited, so no one has to be separated for months at a time. And we want protection in the workplace. We want civil rights, human rights, for everyone,'' said Carranza, an employee of a union for hotel and restaurant workers in southern California.

''It's time for people to stop living in the shadows. They should speak up. They should have rights.''

According to the 2000 Census, about 11% of the U.S. population more than 30 million people are immigrants. The census estimates between 6.8 million and 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

''We need these workers, there is no doubt,'' said Mario Ramos, a Nashville immigration attorney who was a local coordinator for the Nashville stop.

''But we've got to treat people fairly. The system is not fair. I hear people say, 'Why don't they just apply for their papers.' Now there is no easy way to do that. That's why people don't do it. Sometimes people confuse the fact that immigrants don't do it with the fact that they can't do it,'' Ramos said.

''There's not just a lack of a road map for people to follow, there's no road. And that's got to change.''

The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride is one way to provoke change, said the Rev. James Lawson, a retired Methodist minister from Los Angeles who was on the ride's national planning committee.

''This is important to do this today to remind the American people that there are a variety of domestic issues that are to take precedence over Iraq and over globalization,'' Lawson said yesterday following a lunch served at First Baptist Church-Capitol Hill.

''It's also good to remind us that we have power as people. It's called nonviolent power and we need to organize and mobilize around action on many of these issues.''

Lawson added that the 2003 freedom ride calls attention to ''8 (million) to 16 million people in our society who are immigrants, who are in various ways blocked by laws and bureaucracy from being able to legalize their situation.''

''Something's got to give,'' Lawson said.

The minister has experience with nonviolent change. From 1958 to 1962, he lived in Nashville and organized many of the downtown sit-ins at restaurants that would not serve blacks.

''It's my contention as a pastor that no human being in the sight of God is illegal and in a very religious country it's about time that we recognized that God has a purpose for every person, no matter where they come from,'' he said.

Gonzalez, a roofer, certainly believes that. He decided to lose two weeks of work riding a slow bus across the heart of the country because he wants Americans to hear what he and other immigrants have to say.

''This is a good way to be heard. We're going to try to go to Washington with the message that we want to work. We do good work, but the government does not care. I want them to hear our stories, how we're trying to improve our quality of life,'' he said.

For Gaudinez, a doctoral student whose field of study is immigration issues, being on the freedom ride is a rolling laboratory.

''Everyone has a story,'' she said. ''Me, too. I'm from a family of immigrants. My family immigrated here from the Philippines in 1975.

''I was born here so the subject of immigration is personal to me. I stand in solidarity with them.''

Leon Alligood covers Tennessee for The Tennessean. Contact him at 615-259-8279 or by e-mail at