Immigration has a face—thousands, actually

Protests Monday put a local face on the national debate

Rocío Guido-Ferns of the Zapatista Solidarity Group addresses the downtown rally.

Rocío Guido-Ferns of the Zapatista Solidarity Group addresses the downtown rally.

Photo By Carla Resnick

Andrés Hernández, 4, sat in his yellow plastic car tooting a horn in front of Chico City Hall on Monday, his T-shirt bearing a simple message for Congress: “I want my dady to stay with me.”

His father, Rubén Hernández, was nearby, one of the demonstrators waving signs that morning in opposition to House Resolution 4437 that would make illegal immigration and assistance to undocumented immigrants felony offenses and prompt construction of 700 miles of new border fencing. Hernández, himself undocumented, also wore a plea on his chest. His T-shirt’s crude black lettering read, “I want to stay with my son.”

Hernández has spent most of his life—18 of his 28 years—in California without legal residence, having crossed the border illegally as a child. He is married to a U.S. citizen, Carmen, and his children were born here. He has applied for citizenship himself.

The family’s status dilemma was a common theme at a demonstration coinciding with May Day protests nationwide that attracted an estimated 1 million people. In Chico, up to 3,000 people, mostly Latinos, joined a march in the largest downtown demonstration in recent years in this city. The four-hour event began with a 10 a.m. rally at City Hall, where protesters donned “Stop HR 4437” T-shirts. It was sometimes passionate, sometimes celebratory and always spirited.

Demonstrators waved American flags and posted a large Mexican flag on the City Hall lawn. They carried signs that read “We are all immigrants” and “What is happening to the land of the free?” and “Get another scapegoat.” They chanted “Sí, se puede"—"Yes, it can be done"—the slogan used by César Chávez to organize farmworkers in the 1960s.

They came, encouraged by the safety in numbers and incensed by H.R. 4437. They came—families, workers, professionals and peace activists—with canes and wheelchairs and strollers and drums. They were joined by immigrants from Hungary and Pakistan.

Elisander Hernández, 22, skipped a sociology test at Butte College to protest but said his instructor had promised a make-up. Benjamín Montelongo said his boss at an Orland dairy gave him permission to skip work and lobby for a law that includes an amnesty provision that would legalize undocumented workers. Grape picker Eliseo Fernández, 59, came from Yuba City because he says he wants to “work with dignity.”

Nancy Medina, an English-language-development teacher at Chico Junior High School, slipped out during her lunch hour for the march. The House bill, if it became law, would affect her own family members and many of her students, she said. “What if I gave a [undocumented] student a ride home?” she asked. “Could I be charged with smuggling?”

Monday’s protests in Chico drew several thousand Butte County residents.

Photo By Carla Resnick

Later in the day, 650 people joined a second march run by a separate group that convened at One-Mile.

Rocío Guido-Ferns, founder of the Zapatista Solidarity Group that organized the morning event, addressed the rally in both Spanish and English. “We want labor protection for all people, documented and undocumented,” she told the gathering crowd outside City Hall Monday morning. “We’re marching for humane immigration reform for all immigrants, especially those whose families are here. We are all one race, the human race. This is our country, too.”

The previous week, it was unclear what would happen at what had been billed nationwide as the “Great American Boycott.” In Chico and elsewhere, Latino groups were divided on whether to march, encourage walk-outs or stick with a consumer boycott. Nationwide, people had become increasingly fearful in the wake of several high-profile immigration raids conducted by the Department of Homeland Security.

Many of those who supported part or all of the Chico demonstration said they were citizens or legal residents but had family members and friends who were trapped by their illegal status. Others admitted they had crossed the border illegally in search of work they needed to support families.

At first it seemed the rally had attracted a mostly young crowd. About 100 students walked out of classes early Monday at Chico High School, jump-starting the demonstration by standing on the east side of Main Street. The students waved flags and signs. Many motorists honked and pumped their fists in support, prompting appreciative whoops of glee from the students.

Some students said their Latino friends had caused them to consider the consequences of the House bill that has won the support of Rep. Wally Herger and has since March ignited a seemingly spontaneous, nationwide movement for immigrant rights.

“My boyfriend is Mexican, and I’m supporting his whole family,” said Chondra Spaeth, a 15-year-old Chico High sophomore. “Why would we kick out [people] who do so much for us? I’m supporting a great cause.”

Some students also missed classes at Pleasant Valley High and Chico State. A few local restaurants closed for the day.

Andrés Hernández, 4, and his father, Rubén Hernández, wear their plight on their shirt fronts.

Courtesy Of Marisol Salgado

Guido-Ferns said she wasn’t surprised by the turn-out. Zapatista Group members had promoted the event by knocking on doors in nearby farm towns, urging immigrants to organize rather than hide, she said last week.

The demonstration grew as the march proceeded on Broadway and the Esplanade. As demonstrators proceeded up East Eighth Street chanting “Sí se puede,” one family emerged from a house to chant with them.

Some who attended Monday had been at the April 10 march in Chico, but others suggested it was the first time they had taken a public position on a political issue in this country because of their immigration status or the status of family members.

Chico residents had mixed reactions. One motorist shouted angrily, “Learn the language.” Others were annoyed by the inclusion of Mexican flags. Many seemed taken aback by the sudden emergence of an immigrant community that until recently had been perceived as small and quiet.

Manuel Lucero, a retired Chico State art professor, described the demonstration as “mellow” but worried it would contribute to an anti-immigrant backlash. “There was a wonderful authenticity in the people, an innocence here,” he said. “What concerns me is a backlash, that people will become angry. But really, immigrants are taking the jobs that nobody else wants to do.”

At City Hall, demonstrators signed an open letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein asking her to oppose bills that are being debated and “support comprehensive immigration reform that would grant relief to immigrants who live, work, and contribute to life in the United States.” Guido-Ferns urged them to attend a meeting on immigration rights 7 p.m. Saturday, May 6, at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.

The event closed on a note of jubilation: a group of drummers drummed while high-school girls danced and demonstrators lingered, savoring the last few moments of what in their view had been a remarkable event.

They had tasted democracy, and it was good.