In a day of marches nationwide, Chicoans raise their objections to a hot-button immigration bill
A crowd of protesters estimated at nearly 1,000 people marched through Chico’s downtown and congregated in Chico State University’s Free Speech Area Monday afternoon, voicing their displeasure over a controversial immigration bill.
The march was organized by members of Chico State’s MEChA group to spread awareness about the status of illegal immigrants in California if H.R. 4437 is successfully passed into law. Chico was just one community with marches, protests and/or school walkouts Monday. It is estimated that more than 2 million people nationally demonstrated in more than 100 cities and towns.
As marchers did elsewhere, most of the Chico marchers wore white to show solidarity for the immigrant labor force and family members. Hector Najera, a member of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantíl Chicano de Aztlán) and an organizer of the event, said protesters were asked to remain peaceful and not to bring flags, as the underlying message was intended to be “the people’s struggle for equality and not nationality.”
American and Mexican flags were present nonetheless, but the underlying theme was evidenced by the hundreds of signs protesters carried, with messages such as “It is easy to take liberty for granted when you have never had it taken from you” and “Knowledge is Freedom.”
The signs accompanied chanting, led by emcees on megaphones and loudspeakers along the route. The chants ranged from “Sí, se puede!” ("Yes, we can") to “The people united will never be divided.” Whistle-blowing and drum-playing lent a festive, parade-like air. Cars honked, shouts of assent rang out throughout the march, and speakers rallied the crowd at stops, including the fountain in front of the City Council building.
Also known as the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (or the “Sensenbrenner Bill,” for its sponsor in the House), H.R. 4437 makes it a felony to be an illegal immigrant and to offer humanitarian aid to illegals. The bill passed in the House of Representatives in mid-December and is under debate in the Senate.
“It makes every social worker, every counselor, every priest … an agent of the border patrol,” Najera said.
Several other provisions in H.R. 4437 are causing heated debate due to their controversial nature. The bill requires up to 700 miles of fence to be built along the U.S.-Mexico border and states that all children born to illegal immigrants in the United States would become wards of the state.
The march started at West 2nd Street. Protesters marched up Broadway, continued up to West 9th, headed up Park to 12th Street, turned around and marched back toward downtown and the Free Speech Area via Main Street.
Organizers had ample volunteers on hand to maintain the peaceful nature of the protest. Volunteers were active in keeping people on the sidewalks and on the right-hand side of the street, and they acted as crossing guards at traffic lights. Protesters were asked not to obstruct traffic, and despite the large numbers of people stayed organized, calm and on the sidewalks.
No police were on the scene, with the exception of patrol cars periodically driving down Main Street. Besides rubbernecking and the inevitable slowing of traffic, the protest didn’t seem to affect downtown business in any significant way.
“It was well-behaved, well-organized,” Chico Police Sgt. Dave Barrow said. “We had no problems with it.”
Upon arriving at the Free Speech Area, speakers addressed the crowd, which due to traffic lights and the sheer number of marchers arrived slowly but steadily. Speakers included Maria Shahid, professor of Spanish at Butte College; Angela Larocco, a MEChistA and an organizer of the event, and Monica Leonard, MEChA’s historian. Following the long walk, the gathering was short. Protesters peacefully disbanded; some went home, others sat on benches with their signs, and still others found the energy to play music and dance on the lawn.
Protest organizers estimated the crowd at 600 people. Barrow put the estimate at between 900 and 1,000 “by the time they got into the middle of it.”