900 Immigrant Workers Take Freedom Ride of their Own

On the sparkling afternoon of Oct. 3, 18 buses carrying more than 900 Immigrant Workers Freedom Riders rolled into New Jersey's Liberty State Park. The riders, many of them illegal immigrant workers from Central America, had boarded the buses nearly two weeks before in 10 different U.S. cities.

Inspired by the 1961 Freedom Rides for black civil rights, they'd made more than 100 stops in small towns and big cities to promote their reform agenda: greater workplace protections, reunification of immigrant families, and a "road to citizenship" for America's estimated 8 to 10 million undocumented workers.

Now they had made it to their final destination — the Big Apple. Climbing a hill that led from the buses to the rally site overlooking New York Harbor, the Freedom Riders were rewarded with a sunlit view of the icon that has welcomed immigrants since 1886: the Statue of Liberty.

The mood was festive as hundreds of supporters from local labor unions cheered each new set of riders, chanting "Peace, Peace, Peace!" and waving neon-orange protest signs proclaiming "Justicia, Amnistía, Libertad." But down the hill, a few hundred yards away in a barricaded protest area, the mood and the message were decidedly different.

"You are witnessing a federal crime!" bellowed Hal Turner, a neo-Nazi radio host from nearby North Bergen. "These people are illegal aliens, and they are criminals."

"Get the hell out of my country!" Turner yelled, straining to be heard by the Freedom Ride supporters. "We don't want you here! Go back where you came from!"

As more than 50 counter-demonstrators took up Turner's chant — "Arrest the illegals! Arrest the illegals!" — they waved hand-painted signs toward the immigrant rights rally: "Illegal Invasion," "Mine the Mexican Border," "No!!! Minority White America," "I Never Asked for Diversity."

Like the immigrant rights rally, this counter-demonstration — organized by Turner and heavily promoted on his Web site and radio show — was a culmination of sorts. Small clusters of protesters had greeted the Freedom Riders at more than 20 of their stops along the way.

Some of the protests had been lonely, with one or two anti-immigration activists holding signs with slogans like "Being Illegal Is Not a Civil Right." But at upwards of a dozen Freedom Ride stops, the anti-immigration activists had been joined by members of the nation's largest white-supremacist hate groups — all of whom had come together for today's demonstration.

Their arguments often sounded similar. Like Turner and many hate-group leaders, the powerful Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) called for federal officials to arrest the undocumented Freedom Riders.

"Any event that advertises the participation of illegal aliens ought to be raided, and the illegal aliens deported," Mark Krikorian of CIS told the Miami Herald.

Barbara Coe, head of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, wrote her members an urgent "Action Now!" message urging them to flood Congress and the White House with calls to arrest the riders.

"These people are criminals," said Coe. "As such, they have NO 'RIGHTS' other than emergency medical care and humane treatment as they are being DEPORTED! We can only wonder how many in this group of foreign invaders have robbed, raped and possibly murdered law-abiding American citizens and legal residents."

Meanwhile, white-supremacist groups picked up one of the anti-immigration groups' key messages: that immigrants are wrecking the economy and "stealing" jobs from U.S. citizens.

 

Anti-immigration protestors met the Immigrant Workers Freedom Riders along their route, but were often few in number, until the final stop in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
(Lowell Handler)

When Freedom Riders rallied in Immokalee, Fla., they were met by two dozen members of the Orion (Our Race Is Our Nation) Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, waving Confederate and American flags and handing out fliers reading, "STOP Immigration and Keep Americans Working!"

At a Chicago rally, where members of the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens and the neo-Nazi White Revolution appeared along with members of mainstream anti-immigration groups, protesters held signs saying, "No more free rides. No more welfare. No more stolen jobs."

For many of the anti-immigration protesters, rallying side-by-side with neo-Nazis and Klansmen was too close for comfort. "Turns out we were smack in the middle of a damn white supremacist group!" an anti-immigration activist calling herself "JustPiper" complained on an Internet chat site after the Chicago counter-demonstration.

But what really got under JustPiper's skin seemed to be the Freedom Riders, not the neo-Nazis from White Revolution. "[T]hese banditos kept screaming obscenities and threats at us," she claimed. "Lemme tellya, they were just coming with signs like cockroaches!"

D.A. King of the Georgia Coalition for Immigration Reduction — a group that says it does not cater to "persons who believe their race to be superior to others" — had a similar reaction after protesting a Freedom Ride stop outside Atlanta.

"I got the sense that I had left the country of my birth and been transported to some Mexican village, completely taken over by an angry, barely restrained mob," King wrote on the hard-line anti-immigration Web site vdare.com (see Keeping America White). "My first act on a safe return home was to take a shower."

While they may have induced revulsion in some, this fall's Freedom Rides did not produce the immediate — and violent — results of the '61 rides, which embarrassed the federal government into enforcing court rulings ending racial segregation in interstate transportation.

But the show of strength by immigration rights activists left opponents angry and worried. "[I]t broke my heart to listen to all their demands and see their solidarity," wrote JustPiper. "Our fight is cut out for us!"

By the time immigration opponents and racist activists came together in Liberty State Park for the nation's largest counter-demonstration, the anger and anxiety were rising to a boil.

Though the 50 or so white supremacists were far outnumbered by the 1,500 immigrants and supporters rallying three football fields away, they made their voice heard.

Turner raised an arm against the New York City skyline. "If we have to raise a clenched fist to save this country," he bellowed, "here it is!" Fifty more fists rose up, accompanied by a guttural noise that barely resembled a cheer.


To see photos of the Liberty State Park demonstration and counter-demonstrations, view the Intelligence Report's exclusive slideshow.