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Reconquista Calif. Senate backs illegal alien 'freedom ride'

Senate Backs 'Freedom Ride' Planned to Improve Immigrant Workers' Status

Set for September, the event is to highlight issues that affect those in the U.S. illegally and aim to make policy changes to help them.

By Jia-Rui Chong Times Staff Writer

June 27, 2003

A labor-backed bus trip and rally to raise support for immigrant workers, styled after the 1961 Freedom Rides to expose segregation, won the blessing Thursday of the California Senate.

The Senate is the first state legislative body in the country to back the "Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride," which will leave from nine cities at the end of September and converge in Washington, D.C., and New York in October.

Freedom ride organizers plan to highlight five issues as they travel across the country: legalizing undocumented workers currently in the U.S., allowing them to file for citizenship, reunifying all immigrant workers with their families, improving workplace conditions and protecting civil rights.

The joint Senate-Assembly resolution, presented by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), called immigrants "essential to the state's economic growth" and stated that "the security of our state is best protected when no one is forced to live in fear because of his or her immigration status."

The endorsement of the freedom ride and its goals passed 32 to 12 and now goes to the Assembly, where it is likely to be approved.

Sen. Bob Margett (R-Arcadia), who voted against the resolution, thinks it sends the wrong message. Although Margett said he believes the immigration system needs reform, he does not agree that anxiety about immigrants' status threatens state security.

He also objected to the resolution's implied support of illegal immigration.

Margett said that if the endorsement "comes from the Senate floor, it shouldn't be quite so controversial."

The endorsement broadens the immigration discussion between states and the federal government, said Ann Morse, who analyzes immigration policy for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Although states used to focus on federal funding for immigrants, she said, "What is new is for states to look at civil rights and try to persuade the federal government to take a stand on immigration law."

But more legislatures may need to back the Freedom Ride before Congress or the president will champion immigration reform, said Demetrios Papademetriou, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute.

Although President Bush seemed poised to change immigration policy before Sept. 11, the issue has languished.

"I don't think the political moment is here," Papademetriou said.

Freedom Ride supporters, meanwhile, cheered the state Senate endorsement.

Maria Erodita Perla, a hotel housekeeper in San Rafael who testified Wednesday before the Senate's Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, was so happy Thursday that she said she could barely finish her shift.

Her union, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International, has been planning the ride since July 2001.

"I just want all of us to have our papers and I am grateful, thankful to God, to be supported in our efforts," she said through a translator. Perla, 42, who left El Salvador 13 years ago, began crying at the thought of seeing her family again.

State Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar) said it is time to recognize immigrants' contributions to this country, particularly after the military sent more than 30,000 noncitizens to Iraq.

He emphasized California's role in the national immigration debate.

"We as a legislature have taken a very strong position on getting more federal support to deal with the issues that come with such a density of the immigrant population," Alarcon said.

The ride is supported by hundreds of organizations and other elected officials.

Among them are the AFL-CIO, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), Los Angeles City Council members and former Freedom Rider J.M. Lawson Jr., who is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles.

"The struggle is not over," Lawson said. "People who work hard should be given access For the state government to officially recognize this and to call for change is important."