They aren't expecting the kind of violence that greeted the 1961 Freedom Riders who traveled into the deep South to protest segregation. But they see themselves as waging a similar battle for social justice and fuller integration into American society.
Calling their journey the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride (IWFR), some 900 travelers are crisscrossing the country in 18 buses advocating for reforms, including the controversial legalization of workers in the US illegally.
Their immigrant "freedom ride" - expected to end Saturday with a 100,000-strong rally in New York - comes as the nation continues to grapple with immigrant-driven demographic growth. In the 1990s, more than 13 million immigrants arrived, impacting US population growth at a level unprecedented in the 20th century. Moreover, an estimated 9 million people reside in the US illegally.
This week's bus rides, prayer vigils, and rallies also come at a time when the war on terrorism has stalled talk of steps such as creating a new "guest worker" program to address illegal employment and border crossing.
"Immigration is, on net, a very positive force ... but right now, immigration policy and labor-market policy are completely disconnected," says Paul Harrington, associate director of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies, which is not affiliated with the riders. "It's important for people to really start thinking through what contributions we expect immigration to make to American society, and what ... society then owes immigrants."
The diverse crowd of riders - Mexicans and Bangladeshis, undocumented workers and longtime US citizens - is pushing for better conditions for legal as well as illegal immigrants. Their four-point agenda focuses on workplace policies, civil liberties, faster reunification of families, as well as official status for illegal workers.
"It is unjust to maintain second-class status for people who in all other respects are Americans - in their commitment to work, to family, to their communities," says David Koff, an IWFR spokesman and a member of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. "They are here and will continue to come, regardless of the law, because the economy needs more workers and the conditions in their home countries propel them to search for employment."
Others, however, see the bus ride as a slap in the face to citizens and foreigners waiting in line to get here. "What this really should be called is the free ride, because what they want is freedom from playing by the rules," says David Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington. Immigrants here legally, he says, have as much recourse as any other workers who face abuses on the job.
The problem with amnesties for the undocumented, Mr. Harrington says, is that flooding the bottom of the labor market brings down wages. During the recent economic slump, he says, the number of native-born workers dropped by 1.5 million, while the number of employed immigrants rose by 600,000.
Still, some labor unions have been reaching out to the undocumented in recent years, hoping to expand the base of workers they represent. The AFL-CIO is among the sponsors of this week's bus ride, along with interfaith organizations, and immigrant-advocacy groups.
The stories told by riders who departed from Boston this week suggest that the line between "legal" and "illegal" is not always clear-cut to immigrants themselves.
Jean Carmel St.-Juste, a Haitian legal resident of the US, staffs a hotline for the nonprofit Massachusetts Coalition of Occupational Safety and Health. One man told Mr. St.-Juste that he was cut severely and his boss simply told him to go buy a bandage and get back to work. Later he visited a doctor, who gave him 10 stitches. "If I was legal," the man told St.-Juste, "I wouldn't let my boss do that to me." It turned out that he was married to a US citizen and had a work permit, but because he was still waiting for a green card, he didn't know he was "legal."
Manuel Monterrosi, a Boston rider from El Salvador, gained asylum status in 1994 and permission to work two years later. Now a janitor, he has full- and a part-time jobs that pay just over $10 an hour. Every month, he sends $400 back to El Salvador, but he hasn't been authorized to visit his parents and five siblings there.