Politics
6:02 am
Sat August 17, 2013

Immigration Reform Activists March To Calif. Farm Country

Originally published on Sun August 18, 2013 7:35 am

Immigrant and farm worker rights groups came from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, Calif., by the busload this week. Bakersfield, in the state's Central Valley, is farm country, and immigration is a complex issue here.

The groups were converging on the home of the third-most powerful Republican in the House, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.

Activists across the country are targeting a number of Republican members of Congress this summer, trying to pressure the House to take up the immigration reform bill passed in the Senate.

In Bakersfield, the protesters caravaned through the normally sleepy downtown, then held a rally and a march in the 100-degree heat to McCarthy's field office.

Maria Barajas, a 19-year-old recent graduate of Bakersfield High, welcomed the reinforcements.

"We've been coming here for the past, I'd say six months," she says.

Unlike the other protesters, Barajas wasn't holding a sign or beating a drum. She was just standing in a blue cap and gown.

"I want citizenship in order to go to a university," she says.

Barajas moved to Bakersfield from Mexico with her parents when she was a little girl. The big farms here that produce much of the nation's fresh produce have long relied on immigrant labor — much of it illegal. Today Latinos make up half of Bakersfield's population.

Mayor Harvey Hall stood side-by-side with farm worker rights activists on stage at a rally earlier that day. "Our country needs a vibrant, strong and stable agricultural work force that is treated with dignity and respect," he told the crowd.

Hall is a Republican. In fact, you'll find a lot of conservatives here who not only favor immigration reform, but also take a sympathetic tone when talking about people who are here illegally. Take Dean Haddock, who chairs the Kern County GOP.

"I don't want to really call it amnesty," Haddock says. "But if we come to a situation where we say, 'Look, we're glad you're here, we know you're here and we know you have needs and we know you've also produced and provided for our economy ... '"

Haddock wants to see a comprehensive immigration bill pass Congress. But he also says that the flow of illegal immigrants has to stop. The county has high unemployment, and a struggling economy. He says Bakersfield can't afford it anymore.

"The one thing that most Republicans, at least here in this area, see as the fix is securing the border," Haddock says. "Then we can go ahead and do all the other things of taking care of the people that we care about."

Make no mistake, Bakersfield and Kern County are still some of the reddest places in America. And unlike some congressional districts deeper into California's Central Valley, the area has a diverse economy, including Edwards Air Force Base and a big oil industry.

Bakersfield also has an influential Tea Party movement. Right now, McCarthy is getting just as much pressure from anti-immigration groups.

An ad running on local TV, paid for by a group called Californians for Population Stabilization, is one example. "Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy wants to bring in more immigrant workers to take jobs," the ad states. "He's even talking about legalizing 11 million illegal aliens, making it easier for them to take jobs too."

While he's opposed to taking up the Senate's version of immigration reform, McCarthy does favor a step-by-step approach. That makes sense to Gene Tackett, a former Kern County supervisor turned political consultant. He says as House majority whip, McCarthy must fall in line with the speaker.

"He may privately be working on that," Tackett says. "But he's not in a position to be able to push that because he's a soldier in this battle. He's not the general."

And anyway, Tackett, a Democrat, says McCarthy's seat is safe, whether immigration reform passes or not.

McCarthy was in the Middle East and un-reachable this week while the pro-immigrant groups were marching to his office. Barajas says he has yet to speak to protesters. She has deferred-action status, which allows children who were brought here illegally to live and work in the United States for two years without the threat of deportation. Barajas says that's not good enough.

"I want to be a surgeon one day," she says. "What's the point of having this certificate, this degree that says I'm graduated, but I don't even have the citizenship to be out there and do what I want to do?"

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Political activists are targeting Republican members of Congress this summer. They're trying to pressure the House to take up the immigration reform bill passed in the Senate. And this week, the protesters came to the home of the third-most powerful Republican in the House, Representative Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, California.

Bakersfield is in the state's Central Valley. That's farm country where immigration is a complex issue. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Immigrant and farm worker rights groups came up from Los Angeles by the busload. First, a caravan through the normally sleepy downtown. Next, a rally. And then a march in the 100-degree heat to Congressman Kevin McCarthy's field office. Maria Barajas, a 19-year-old recent graduate of Bakersfield High, welcomed the reinforcements.

MARIA BARAJAS: We've been coming here for the past, I'd say six months.

SIEGLER: Unlike the other protesters, Barajas wasn't holding a sign or beating a drum. She was just standing there in a blue cap and gown.

BARAJAS: We want, I want citizenship in order to go to a university.

SIEGLER: Barajas moved to Bakersfield from Mexico with her parents when she was a little girl. The big farms here that produce much of the nation's fresh produce have long relied on immigrant labor, much of it illegal. Today, Latinos make up half of Bakersfield's population.

MAYOR HARVEY HALL: Our country needs a vibrant, strong and stable agricultural workforce that is treated with dignity and respect.

SIEGLER: This is Bakersfield's mayor, Harvey Hall. He stood side-by-side with farm worker rights activists on stage at a rally earlier that day. Now, Hall is a Republican, and in fact you'll find a lot of conservative here who not only favor immigration reform, but also take a sympathetic tone when talking about people who are here illegally. Take Dean Haddock, who chairs the Kern County GOP.

DEAN HADDOCK: I don't want to really call it amnesty, but if we come to a situation where we say, look, we're glad you're here, we know you're here, and we know you have needs and we know you've also produced and provided for our economy...

SIEGLER: Haddock wants to see a comprehensive immigration bill pass Congress but he's also clear the flow of illegal immigrants has to stop. The county has high unemployment and a struggling economy. He says Bakersfield can't afford it anymore.

HADDOCK: The one thing that most Republicans, at least here in this area, see as the fix is securing the border. Then we can go ahead and do all the other things of taking care of the people that we care about.

SIEGLER: Make no mistake, Bakersfield and Kern County are still some of the reddest places in America. And unlike some congressional districts deeper in the California Central Valley is more than just large farms here. There's Edwards Air force Base nearby and a big oil industry. There's also an influential Tea Party movement. And right now Congressman McCarthy is getting just as much pressure from anti-immigration groups.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy wants to bring in more immigrant workers to take jobs. He's even talking about legalizing 11 million illegal aliens, making it easier for them to take jobs too.

SIEGLER: This ad running on local TV is paid for by a group called Californians for Population Stabilization. While he's opposed to taking up the Senate's version of immigration reform, McCarthy does favor a step-by-step approach. And that makes sense to Gene Tackett. Tackett is a former Kern County supervisor turned political consultant. He says as House Majority Whip, McCarthy must fall in line with the Speaker.

GENE TACKETT: He may privately be working on that, but he's not in a position to be able to push that because, you know, he's a soldier in this battle. He's not the, you know, he's not the general.

SIEGLER: Anyway, Tackett, who's a Democrat, says McCarthy's seat is safe whether immigration reform passes or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

SIEGLER: The congressman was in the Middle East and unreachable this week while the pro-immigrant groups were marching to his office. Nineteen-year-old Maria Barajas says he has yet to speak to protesters. Barajas has deferred action status, which allows children who are brought here illegally to live and work in the U.S. for two years without the threat of deportation. Barajas says that's not good enough.

BARAJAS: I want to be a surgeon one day and what's the point of having this certificate, this degree that says I'm graduated, but I don't even have the citizenship to be out there and do what I want to do?

SIEGLER: Groups demonstrating in Bakersfield this week and in Republican held congressional districts around the country are vowing to continue their marches and protests until Congress reconvenes. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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