San Jose Peace & Justice Center

By Sharat G. Lin
The grassroots campaign for comprehensive immigration reform ramped up in California during the Congressional recess with bus and car caravans to Bakersfield to urge Congressman Kevin McCarthy to support a vote in the House on a path to citizenship. A noisy crowd of people from all over the state rallied in front of Mr. McCarthy’s office while negotiators met inside. The caravan is but one of many happening through the beginning of September.

Thousands of people travelled from all over the state of California on August 14, 2013 to press Congressman Kevin McCarthy, Majority Whip from Bakersfield, to support a vote in the House of Representatives on a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Recognizing that Mr. McCarthy is the third-ranking Republican in the House, winning his support for a “common sense path to citizenship” has been the goal of immigration reform activists throughout the state. For this reason, organizers said, “The path to citizenship goes through Bakersfield.”

“The time is now to reunite families who have been separated. The time is now to allow immigrants to come out of the shadows and continue to contribute to America's future. And the time is now for members of the House to vote on a real solution to a broken system,” said Martha Arevalo, executive director of the Central American Resource Center. “The Caravan for Citizenship illustrates the vast diversity of people who support this effort.”

Rallying in Yokuts Park, supporters of humane immigration heard from trade unionists, community organizers, religious leaders, poets, musicians, and Dreamers – undocumented students who qualified for Federal deferred action and the California Dream Acts. Then they marched a short distance to Congressman McCarthy’s district office on Empire Drive, where they were met by a handful of opponents of immigration reform.

Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform carried signs saying “Reforma migratoria justa” and “The time is now.” Many waved United States and United Farm Workers’ flags. The UFW flags said, “¡Si se puede!” Some activists carried butterfly posters, suggesting that migration is a natural right. Others carried a dinosaur effigy of Congressman Kevin McCarthy, suggesting that opposition to comprehensive immigration reform legislation will lead to political extinction.

Opponents of immigration reform carried signs saying “No amnesty” and “Stop illegal immigration.” One member of the group carried a sign reading “Close the border” and “Visa violators out.” Immigrant rights organizers assigned their march security personnel to form a human barrier between immigrant rights and immigration reform opponents while Bakersfield police stood by and did nothing. Despite some heated arguments, peace was maintained.

Leading organizations behind the caravans include the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), the California Table, the United Farm Workers (UFW), Services Immigrant Rights and Education Network (SIREN), and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Dozens of individual labor unions and community organizations mobilized hundreds of buses and cars to bring supporters to Congressman McCarthy's office on a Wednesday morning.

Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of SEIU explained, “We’re here to tell Congressman McCarthy that the time is now to reform our broken immigration system and provide a path to citizenship for 11 million aspiring Americans. As a leader within the House Republican leadership, Congressman McCarthy has a responsibility to encourage his colleagues to move forward on common sense immigration reform.”

As a result of grassroots pressure initiated by statewide caravans in early March 2013, other California Republican congressmen have come forth to support comprehensive immigration reform, including some sort of pathway to citizenship. Congressmen Jeff Denham, Devin Nunes, and David Valadao have made statements in support of this approach.

Reflecting rare agreement between farm labor and business, Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall, addressing the rally, said, “Our farmworkers need enhanced wages, not cutbacks and reductions. Agricultural business needs immigration reform to increase their workforce that brings food to our tables. An estimated 2.5 million undocumented agricultural workers are in the fields each day. We need the U.S. Senate and Congress to enact immigration reform that includes care and compassion and kindness and justice to ensure a positive pathway to citizenship.”

While the U.S. Senate has already passed its version of bipartisan Comprehensive Immigration Reform in S. 744, one of the bill’s most serious shortcomings is that the excepted wait time to citizenship for undocumented immigrations in good standing will be a minimum of 13 years, and subject to the achievement of a number of border enforcement thresholds or “triggers” prior to completing the legalization process. This will be in addition to the 10, 15, or 20 years many people have already been waiting in the shadows. Republican control of the House makes it likely that the House version of immigration reform will be even less favorable in various respects. This political reality puts demands for a humane waiting period for citizenship on the back burner. It also fails to address any pathway to legalization for some 3-4 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Final passage of comprehensive immigration reform will be a milestone which will provide humane relief to the majority of undocumented immigrants currently in the country. It will allow them to come out of the shadows, fully participate and contribute to society, shed their fears, and assert their human rights. While passage of comprehensive immigration reform will enable President Barack Obama and Congress to add a major accomplishment to their historical legacies, a lengthy and tortuous pathway to citizenship will still leave much to be desired. The demand for bringing any kind of comprehensive immigration reform to a vote in the House is not enough. The need is for a humane pathway to citizenship for all but serious criminals, visa quotas that truly meet the nation’s economic needs, and broader not reduced provisions for family reunification.

Meanwhile other caravans are shuttling across the state to mobilize for another convergence in Bakersfield on September 2, 2013. At a press conference on August 13 in San José, Father Jon Pedigo, a leader of People Acting in Community Together (PACT), said the coastside leg of the caravan from San José to San Luis Obispo (one of three) will “tour to hear these stories from immigrant families, business owners, Democrats and Republicans” about why “our immigration system is broken and unsustainable.”

These caravans are among hundreds of actions across the nation during the August congressional recess escalating the pressure for comprehensive immigration reform with a humane pathway to citizenship.

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