SAN JOSE, Calif. -About 200 documented and undocumented immigrants and their supporters held a lively demonstration Nov. 27 outside the Office of Homeland Security here, calling on Congress and the Obama administration to stop deportations and enact comprehensive immigration reform, making it clear that they weren't going to stand idly by while the Republicans in the House leadership block a badly needed new immigration law.
The protest was organized by the Santa Clara County Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, a broad-based grouping that includes the South Bay Labor Council and several unions, religious congregations and clergy, and other community organizations and activists.
The rally featured accounts by several undocumented immigrants about how their families had been torn apart by deportation and the difficulty of finding and keeping work without papers. The disruption of families is one of the cruelest tolls taken on immigrants by the enforcement of current immigration law. Almost two million have been deported since the Obama administration took office in 2008. Thousands of children are forced into foster care because their parents have been deported. The demonstration featured a symbolic Thanksgiving table, three of whose seats were occupied by a mother and two sons whose father was a victim of the administration's vigorous deportation policy.
The table had places for others whose voices need to be heard in the struggle for immigration reform, including a Dream Act student from San Jose State University brought to the U.S. as an infant but now facing possible deportation, the "business community," and "elected officials." Fortunately, that last seat was occupied by Representative Zoe Lofgren, a staunch supporter of immigrant rights, who said, "Democrats are willing to sit down with Republicans to fix the broken immigration system, but what we can't do is nothing. An absence of action in Congress is simply unacceptable."
Father Jon Pedigo, an organizer with the Coalition and pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in heavily Latino east San Jose, emphasized the need for those in power to hear all voices in the struggle: "This demonstration is about showing who is at the table and who is not when it comes to the debate on immigration reform. There is a lot of frustration here because very little is happening as the right players are not being included in important conversations around this issue. True reform will come when the negotiations involve labor, business, the clergy, Dream Act students and their parents, and elected officials, including Republicans."
Steve Parry, pastor of a church primarily serving the homeless, underscored the need for unity: "We believe in God, and God has given us these rights"-including, he pointed out, the right to a job and to education-"but we can't win these rights unless we're united, and that's why we're here."
The rally was a festival of colorful T-shirts. Several dozen people wore orange shirts proclaiming "LiUNA!-Feel the Power." LiUNA is the Laborers' International Union of North America. They reported that businesses would glady hire immigrant workers until they demand better wages, benefits, or working condition-and then, according to several speakers, immigrant workers get intimidation and rejection.
Others wore white T-shirts declaring, "I am a voter." One of these, Elena Pacheco who does workshops of "Dreamer" students at high schools in the nearby community of Mountain View, told this reporter that she wants people to know that not all Latinos are undocumented-"We're legal, and we vote-for people who will do something about immigration."
Demonstrators vigorously waved a variety of handmade signs: "Unification not Separation," "We Are Here to Stay," "¡Justicia!" and "I Stand for Farmworkers: Stop Deportation Now!" Passing motorists honked horns in a symphony of support.
"We are tired of excuses," said Fr. Pedigo. "If nothing is done, an escalation of frustration will continue. If Democrats want to retain our support, they must act. If Republicans want to obtain our support, they must act. Either way, this issue is not going away."
That frustration-but also determination-echoed far and wide as the rally closed with vigorous shouts of "¡Sí se puede!"-"Yes we can!"
On Nov. 30, in San Francisco, the president delivered a speech pushing for immigration reform. He was interrupted by a young man standing in a crowd behind him, who urged the president to use his executive order to end the disgrace of separating families. He yelled, "You have the power to stop deportations!" The president disagreed and said, "Actually, I don't," telling security to not escort the man out. "He can stay there.... I respect the passion of these young people," Obama said, adding that Congress needs to act to fix the broken immigration system because the United States is "a nation of laws." But immigrant rights activists say that the president can do more on deportations and separated families than currently being done.
Teresa Albano contributed to this story.
Photo: PW/Henry Millstein