by Greg Cunningham
Buses leave cities all over the country, intending to converge on Washington, D.C., for a rally in support of better working conditions and basic human rights. Is this a scene from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s? No. It's a modern-day freedom ride, based on those of the '60s, advocating for migrant workers.

On Sept. 23, buses full of "freedom riders" left cities around the country, headed for rallies in the nation's capital and New York. They attended activities in support of their cause along the way, including the rallies that happened last weekend. The bus that left Seattle stopped at the Tyson food plant in Wallula, about 15 miles east of Pasco. There the freedom riders talked about the plight of migrant workers in the United States. Walla Walla County, where Wallula is located, and neighboring Franklin County have large migrant populations due to a concentration of agricultural activity. The freedom riders sang songs, such as "We Will Not Be Moved" and "Pellegrinos de la Liberdad" (Pilgrims of Liberty), in both English and Spanish. They carried banners representing the freedom ride sponsors: the United Farm Workers, the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, the Service Employees International, and others. Posters bobbed overhead, reading, "Get on the Bus!" "Cuidadanos e ilegales: aqui todos somos eguales/Citizens and Illegals: Here we are all equal," and "We are all immigrants." Hispanic, black, white, Asian, young, old, the freedom riders greeted the Tyson employees with smiles, waves, cheers, upraised thumbs and a message of hope.

The freedom riders are fighting for changes in the living and working conditions of migrant workers, most of whom are unlawful immigrants and have no legal status in this country. They labor at low-paying, dirty, hard, monotonous jobs that are often dangerous -- jobs that don't attract many applicants. Many jobs are seasonal, so workers must move around. Their willingness to do this work is responsible at least in part for an inexpensive, plentiful food supply, yet they themselves struggle to put food on their tables. Unlawful immigrants pay taxes but can't access the services they pay for. They tolerate the poor working conditions because they have little protection under the law and no avenues through which to address their grievances. Complaining could get them kicked out of the country. Away from work, they live in fear of the minor legal infraction that will identify them as being here unlawfully and result in the same fate. In spite of all this, however, their lives here are better than what they left behind.

Migration to and within the United States is nothing new. Historically, people have moved around seeking better conditions or more opportunity. Jamestown was an economic venture, as were the gold rushes and westward expansion of the 19th century. In a global economy, the reasons for migration have changed, but people still wander, seeking opportunities. Outside forces have created conditions in developing countries that make migration a necessity for those who seek economic opportunity in richer nations.

Short of building a wall along the border with Mexico, there is no way to shut the door completely on unlawful immigrants coming to this country; as many as 8 million live here now. The call of opportunity is strong, and many risk their lives to answer it. Some have died in the endeavor, succumbing in the Arizona desert or in a tractor trailer abandoned at a Texas truck stop.

Because migration is linked with survival, the migrants' plight should be a concern for humanitarian reasons. One way to address the problem, at least partially, is to allow those already here to gain legal status, allowing them some protection under the law. This can only be done on the federal level. Congress must liberalize immigration laws for certain immigrants who are here unlawfully, opening the door to legal status and greater opportunity and security in this country.

Several Democratic presidential candidates, including Dick Gephardt and Joe Liebermann, have proposed bills to help unlawful immigrants obtain legal status. In addition, Sens. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) have proposed an "amnesty" program which would allow certain unlawful immigrants who have been in the country for a specific length of time and who have done certain types of work to get permanent residency. Such legislation can only improve the quality of life for the country as a whole. When people are less consumed by fear of removal from the United States and the stress caused by unsafe working conditions and low pay, they can invest themselves in their families and communities.

Workers who provide such a vital service to our economy deserve decent working conditions and a chance to build their lives in security. By affording them some protection under the law, an amnesty program would be a first step in alleviating the poor working conditions with which unlawful immigrants and migrants workers in general must deal. They aren't asking for much -- a measure of justice and a chance to live, work and support their families and contribute to the larger community, just as preceding generations of immigrants have done.

Greg Cunningham is the director of Catholic Charities of Spokane's refugee and immigration services.

Publication date: 10/09/03

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