Overcoming in Texas

Editor’s note: The Weekly’s Ben Ehrenreich, covering the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride to Washington, D.C., was on board when the INS detained passengers last week in Texas. Ehrenreich’s story on the ride will appear in coming weeks. He filed this report from the road.

OUTSIDE EL PASO, TEXAS — The original Freedom Riders — the civil rights pioneers who in 1961 struggled for integration in the Jim Crow South — were greeted in Southern cities with brass knuckles, bombs and handcuffs. By comparison, the labor organizers, workers and activists on two New York–bound buses taking part in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride have received warm welcomes everywhere they’ve gone.

In Palm Beach, Phoenix and Tucson, hundreds turned out to greet the riders, who left Los Angeles on September 23 to form part of the caravan of buses from 10 cities that converged in Washington this Wednesday in an attempt to bring attention to the plight of immigrant workers and spearhead a new movement for immigrant rights. It wasn’t until the buses stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, Texas, about 70 miles southeast of El Paso, that they received the sort of inhospitable greeting that many immigrants to this country have come to expect.

It was a little past 7 when the buses slowed to a halt at a permanent immigration checkpoint in the Sonora Desert town of Sierra Blanca. The stop was no surprise — the ride’s organizers had prepared for it by contacting the immigration service before the ride began, requesting that the buses be allowed to pass unchallenged. They also prepared the riders, who went through three hours of “solidarity training” in Los Angeles before the trip began. To prevent the INS from singling out undocumented immigrants, the riders stowed all official identifying documents in the buses’ cargo bins. Riders carried a badge with their name and photograph on one side and a message to law enforcement on the other: “To Whom it May Concern: I am a participant in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a peaceful campaign by citizens and immigrants in support of equal rights for all workers. I wish to exercise my right to remain silent.”

When two green-uniformed Border Patrol officers boarded each bus and began asking passengers to state their citizenship, they responded with a chorus of “We Shall Overcome,” and by holding up their ID badges with the message facing out. As Dan Gregor, the group’s attorney, negotiated with Border Patrol officials, the riders kept singing in their seats for nearly two hours. At a little after 9, officers again boarded the bus, repeated their questions, and, again receiving no answers, asked the riders to step

off the bus. Officers led them in small groups into the Border Patrol station, where they were held in small, crowded cells and questioned individually.

“We were told we could be arrested if we didn’t answer their questions,” says the ride’s director, Maria Elena Durazo. But no one, she adds, said a word. The riders continued singing, clapping and chanting in the cells until Border Patrol agents marched them, still singing, back onto the buses.

An hour later, at 10:45, three and a half hours after the buses were first stopped, the station’s gray-mustached officer in charge, incongruously named Michael Jackson, told Gregor that everyone was free to go. Jackson would not say why the group had been released, but according to Durazo, the riders had contacted politicians and religious and community leaders as soon as the buses were stopped, asking them to demand that the INS release the riders promptly. “The decision was not made locally,” says Gregor. Jackson, he says, told him repeatedly over the course of the morning that he was waiting to hear from his superiors.

While driving out of San Antonio early the next morning, Hilda Delgado, the Freedom Ride’s media liaison, announced to the group that the INS had been telling reporters that the riders had been given drinks and snacks while they were detained, and had only been released after everyone had shown officers documentation of their legal residency. No one laughed for long.

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