Arizona law prompts further debate, activism on immigration issues
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- About 1,000 to 1,500 people sang and chanted slogans in Spanish as they marched four miles through Wenatchee on a cool, windy Saturday evening to remind President Obama he promised immigration reform.
Throughout the march and rally, the mostly Latino crowd shouted "Si, se puede!" which means "Yes, we can." They shouted, "No!" at a post-march rally in Lincoln Park when David Ayala, organizing director of OneAmerica of Seattle, passionately asked them if Obama kept his promise of delivering immigration reform in his first year.
The march and rally were among many across the nation on May 1, International Day of the Worker, pressuring the president and Congress to act on immigration reform. Organizers said interest increased in opposition to Arizona's new law giving police greater authority to arrest illegal immigrants.
Pramila Jayapal, founder and executive director of OneAmerica, urged the Wenatchee crowd to keep fighting for immigration reform this year.
She said 10,000 people attended a rally in Seattle, 3,000 in Yakima, 700 in Walla Walla, 500 in Kent, 100 in Lacey, 100 in Centralia and 50 in Pasco. Rallies also were held in Mount Vernon and Vancouver.
In Oregon, rallies were scheduled for Portland, Salem, Medford, Bend and Hermiston. There were rallies in Boise and Moscow, Idaho, and in many California cities.
The Associated Press reported a march of 250 people in Santa Cruz, Calif., resulted in smashed windows and spray painting of storefronts. No one was injured. Damage was estimated at $50,000 to $100,000 to 18 businesses.
Police estimated turnout in Los Angeles at 50,000, Dallas at 20,000, Chicago at 8,000 and New York at 6,500, AP reported. Organizers claimed substantially higher numbers. U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., was among 35 people arrested for civil disobedience at the White House.
About 5,000 rallied in Tucson and several thousand in Phoenix. A few dozen people counter-rallied in support of the new Arizona law in Tucson and San Francisco, AP reported.
Rally sponsors included Service Employees International Union, Reform Immigration for America and coalitions of faith, civil rights and immigration activists.
Marcher Jose Pelayo, 47, a Wenatchee orchard and packing shed worker, is afraid Washington will adopt a law similar to Arizona's.
Jorge Chacon, 65, director of Central Latino Northwest Family Services Institute and Wenatchee rally organizer, called the Arizona law "blatant racism."
"There's an outrage throughout the nation that will serve as an impetus for us to see something done this year. They can stop anyone who looks different than being white. It's racial profiling at its best. It's very, very damaging to the United States," Chacon said.
He said America's "broken immigration policy" is an injustice that separates families across the border. He said he's not asking for an open border but wants a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the U.S.
The Capital Press interviewed Chacon and several agriculture industry officials on their views about immigration the day before the rallies.
Jeff Stone, director of government relations for the Oregon Association of Nurseries and co-chair of Coalition for a Working Oregon, said citizenship for illegal immigrants is a flash point between the political left and right.
A solution, he said, is payment of fines and legal work status for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants working in the country with citizenship as something they work toward through the normal process.
The Coalition for a Working Oregon is a group of 22 businesses that says it seeks reasonable solutions to the immigration issue. The group says the economy would be significantly damaged if all illegal workers were deported.
Before the recession, an Oregon State University study estimated loss of undocumented workers in Oregon -- about 50 percent of the state's agricultural workforce -- would shrink the state's economy by $18 billion, Stone said.
Government and industry officials estimate 70 percent of the 40,000-member seasonal workforce in the Eastern Washington tree fruit industry is illegal.
The right opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants and fears the country being overtaken by Latinos while the left wants citizenship, Stone said.
"The edges of the issue dominate the news," he said. "The real work is in the middle.
"It's a hot button, like the right to bear arms and abortion," he said. "There are strong feelings by smart people on both sides. This issue is being talked about at almost every kitchen table in America. The question is will we stand up and solve it. I don't want to defer it so my 10-year-old daughter has to solve it at my age."
A comprehensive bill needs to secure the border, give illegal immigrants already here legal work status and provide a guestworker program for the future that meets America's labor needs without displacing willing American workers, he said.
Ramon Ramirez, president of PCUN, a tree farm labor union in Woodburn, Ore., and a sponsor of rallies in Portland and Salem, said people are sending a loud message that the time for action is now. He said Obama and Democrats are willing, but it is a "hot potato" for Republicans.
Crime by illegal aliens, including the murder of a border rancher, prompted Arizona's law. Ramirez said he opposes criminals coming in but that most illegal immigrants come to work.
"They are the very people who pick our crops to put food on the table," he said.
He noted illegal entry is a misdemeanor in U.S. immigration law.
"So yes, you can say they broke the law. So what. You jaywalk and speed every day. So it's just one of those things, yet workers are criminalized. The vast majority are hardworking people, some of the best people in the world," he said.
West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers Inc. in Wenatchee, said he supports comprehensive immigration reform because industry needs a legal, stable workforce. He said he supports a path toward citizenship but not blanket citizenship.
Mike Gempler, executive director of Washington Growers League, a Yakima-based advocate for agricultural employers on labor issues, said the league supports comprehensive immigration reform. He said Democrats in Congress want to do something but see time slipping away. He said an enforcement-only policy is destructive to agriculture.