Nabil Bayakly, a Muslim from Lebanon, was once a professor of foreign languages at the University of Memphis. He's now facing deportation after attempting to register under the Patriot Act's special registration system, which requires men of a certain age originating from Middle Eastern countries to report to Immigration and Naturalization Services.
"When I went to register, I was arrested," says Bayakly. "My work permit was taken away from me, and I'm now battling this in a court case. They just told me I was illegal here. When I asked under what pretense, he just said, 'You're illegal.' And that's all he would tell me. I have four kids, all born here, and I've lived in this country for 25 years. After the terrorist attacks, there's been a battle raged against civil liberties, and people need to know about it." Memphis is about to be involved in another civil rights movement. But this time, the focus has broadened. On Sunday, September 28th, two buses from the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride (IWFR) will stop at the National Civil Rights Museum to rally for an improved immigration policy and to bring attention to the rights of immigrant workers. Riders will also be rallying for civil liberties, workplace rights, and the right to reunify families. Among the speakers will be Bayakly.
Taking a cue from the original Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement, the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides are a national mobilization of immigrant workers -- documented and undocumented -- traveling on nine separate bus routes across the country. Memphis is a stop along the way for riders on the Los Angeles buses headed for a mass rally in New York.
"When it comes to exploitation of immigrant workers, Memphis is no exception to the rule," says David Lubell of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition. "In the last 10 years, the immigrant population in Memphis has exploded. The undocumented population, which is sizable, is definitely being exploited. I work with people every day who have not gotten paid for work done or have been fired without reason."
Although undocumented workers are illegal, Lubell believes this reflects a needed change in immigration policy -- loosened legalization procedures for citizenship status.
Also scheduled to speak at the rally are a couple of students from the Latino community who are pushing for passage of the Dream Act, legislation that would allow children of undocumented parents to have legal residence so long as they attend college.
Several Latino immigrant workers fired from Fred's warehouse in Memphis earlier this year will also be in attendance and may speak about workers' rights. According to Rebekah Jordan of the Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice, the workers were terminated after Fred's claimed to have received "No-Match" letters from the Social Security administration.
"No-Match" letters indicate names and Social Security numbers on W-2 forms that do not match government records. They're intended as a way to ensure that earnings are properly credited. Jordan says employers are not required to dismiss workers when a letter is received.
The riders are fashioning the protest after those in 1961 by an interracial group of students who rode a bus from Washington, D.C., to Montgomery, Alabama. There are several original freedom riders on the IWFR planning committee, and some are scheduled to ride. Jordan says they haven't been able to locate any original riders from Memphis, but she hopes if there are any, they'll show up at the rally.
Riders stopping in Memphis will stay overnight at the First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young. The Memphis rally is just one of numerous rallies across the country taking place in late September and early October.
Other buses from Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Houston, Minneapolis, Chicago, Miami, and Boston will be stopping in various cities en route to a lobbying rally scheduled for October 1st-2nd in Washington, D.C., and a wrap-up rally in Queens, New York, on the 4th.
"The Freedom Ride is an amazing mobilization, because there's a lot of people who'd love to do something, but it's very unclear what," says Jordan. "To bring all these people together nationally and to have rallies happening at the same time in different cities is really going to show people that immigrants' rights are essential to who we are as a country."