San Francisco Chronicle
By Otis R. Taylor Jr.
April 05, 2017
Martha Benitez, coordinator of the Northern California Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides Coalition, holds a press conference in front of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco office in May 2004 to call attention to comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
Martha Benitez, coordinator of the Northern California Immigrant…
They share stories about the obstacles they’ve faced to make it to America — and their struggles to remain here.
You hear from Mauricio Barrera, who fled El Salvador in 1978 as the government assassinated labor union leaders. He recalls standing still in darkness at the Mexican border as hissing snakes slither around him. And there’s Meheret Fikre-Selassie, who talks about how missionaries helped her escape from violence in Ethiopia in 1997.
The 2017 film captures the cross-country journey of 100 Northern Californians who participated in the 2003 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a rolling demonstration carrying more than 900 immigrants and their supporters from 10 cities to Washington, D.C.
There, the immigrant workers marched to draw attention to their poor working conditions and lack of benefits and rights.
They all were exposed to arrest, but the undocumented among them also risked deportation.
By putting people on buses, the coalition of unions, civil rights organizations and faith leaders used a tactic from the Civil Rights Movement. In 1961, as the Jim Crow practices of the South continued despite rulings that found segregation to be unconstitutional, blacks and whites joined for Freedom Rides to expose the South’s grim racial climate.
The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride marched from Yerba Buena to the…
Some of the riders were beaten, their lives threatened, to stall the march toward equality.
We weren’t even close to achieving equal treatment for all in this country, and now under the new president and his administration, we’re losing ground.
But in 2003, it seemed like immigration reform was on the horizon. Both Republicans and Democrats had proposed creating guest-worker programs and granting legal status to undocumented workers already in the United States. And business and labor groups sought a deal that would help fill low-end jobs.
It feels like a lifetime ago.
Since the president and his administration began enforcing its hard-line stance on illegal immigration, immigration agents have made arrests at courthouses and in communities of people who were here to make a better life. Families are being torn apart, and people are living in fear.
“Now we find ourselves in a defensive mode instead of a position moving forward,” Lapin said during one of our recent phone conversations.
Her film will be screened at Oakland City Hall on Friday as part of the Oakland International Film Festival.
Would organizers even dare to suggest the ride in the current anti-immigration climate?
According to Rigo Valdez, who rode on the Bay Area bus in 2003, people need to put their freedom on the line now more than ever.
“I think that something like that is necessary to take the message out of the cities and to support folks that have immigration issues in rural areas so that they don’t feel by themselves,” said Valdez, who was brought to the United States from Mexico when he was 2.
Valdez, who became a citizen in 2005 and lived in San Francisco for 17 years before moving to Los Angeles, said the Freedom Ride raised awareness for immigrant workers. He recalled stopping in cities in Nevada and Kentucky, where there wasn’t a lot of support for immigrant rights.
“It makes me want to fight harder and stronger against this administration and these policies,” said Valdez, the vice president of UFCW Local 770, the union that represents workers in retail, food production and grocery and drug stores. “All residents, especially in California, contribute to a vibrant economy. And we all have our place.”
Valdez said he was scared when he learned one bus, which departed from Los Angeles, had been detained in Texas by immigration enforcement agents who ordered people off the bus to check their status. The bus was eventually released.
Counter-demonstrations in Reno and St. Louis also frightened Valdez.
“But everyone stuck together in such a great way that the feeling of being afraid left you and you felt empowered,” he said. “You felt like you were on the right side of something.”
For Lapin, making the film gave her a view of life outside the Bay Area bubble. Civil disobedience is common and expected here, but it’s not met with the same tolerance elsewhere.
“It’s a whole different situation when you’re in other parts of the country,” said Lapin, who lives in Pacifica. “It hit me afterwards how courageous those folks were, participating in the ride.”
What does she hope people get out of the film?
“When you tell stories to each other, you find common ground, and that’s where we take collective action — starting from that point,” Lapin said. “I think that’s the start of understanding people, breaking down those barriers that some people want to create and try to divide us.”
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com