Compared to the 20,000 or more Santa Barbarans who marched miles last year for immigrant rights, the turnout for this year’s immigrant rights procession was modest. About 500 people walked the few blocks to the Courthouse Sunken Gardens from Alameda Park on May Day. There were plenty of reasons for the difference in numbers: Last year, the demonstrations were very focused on high-profile anti-immigration bills then snaking their way through Congress and the Senate. The most draconian of these-the Sensenbrenner bill that would have persecuted illegal immigrants more harshly and those who aided them-was later defeated.
Border Patrol vans cruising the streets of Isla Vista and Goleta on May 1 may also have had a dampening effect. Appearing around the time that many people were going to work-between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m.-agents reportedly took some workers from Por la Mar Nursery on Patterson Avenue, according to witnesses. Virginia Kice, a spokesperson for United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, confirmed that 17 arrests were made in the Santa Barbara area of people who ignored deportation orders issued during immigration proceedings. She added that arrests are made constantly and that the timing of the patrols-on the day of the year when international workers’ rights are traditionally celebrated and when rallies were planned nationwide to support immigration reform-was purely coincidental.
This year’s organizers aim to focus the community’s efforts on creating a labor resource center in place of the day-labor line on Yanonali Street. Casa de la Raza Director Maricela Marquez described the labor line, which has been the target of mass arrests for drug dealing, as “not dignified.” UCSB Women’s Studies Professor Grace Chang added that the area is particularly unsafe for the immigrant women, who “take care of children and the elderly, and who put food on the table in every single way.” La Casa recently formed the Alliance for Immigrant Rights, which will focus on the project, with more than a dozen other organizations including the ACLU, an expatriates’ organization called the Consejo Consultivo de los Mexicanos en el Exterior, the Women’s Political Committee, PUEBLO, and the Fund for Santa Barbara.
The crowd ranged from lawyers to students to lots of people working in low-income service jobs. A woman who has worked at a local hotel for more than 12 years said she is not here legally and that without legal status she has no opportunity to advance. A man who said he crossed the border illegally at age 16 is now a citizen; he has worked at Hillside House nursing home for more than 20 years. The sentiment expressed by Nicolasa Mendez-who works as a custodian and was there with her husband, Juan Carlos Mendez, who works as a cook-summed up the one view that everybody present had in common when she said, “We need legislation that will legalize most of the workers.”
Onlookers who saw the procession on State Street had varying responses, from those who honked and gave the thumbs up sign, to a tourist from Phoenix sitting with her husband at a sidewalk cafe, who said, “This is our U.S.A., not theirs.” Asked if she thought Santa Barbara or Phoenix could function without immigrant labor, she said, “Probably not, unfortunately, but we need to be in control of it.”
A few moments later at the Sunken Gardens, banners bearing images of the Virgin of Guadalupe formed a backdrop for the Kallpulli Malinal-Xochitl Aztec dancers, whose gold-colored trappings glittered in the descending sun in front of the courthouse steps.
The theme of Native American identity threaded throughout the evening: Monique Sonoquie-a Chumash woman who is the executive director of the Indigenous Youth Foundation-told the crowd, “We are indigenous; we still trade, we still travel, and we still marry up and down this continent.” She started the crowd chanting, “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.” What the demonstrators lacked in jaw-dropping numbers they made up for in willingness to stand for more than two hours listening to speeches.
The U.S. depends on immigrant workers for its “wealth and majesty,” said an immigration attorney from Mexico; Mexico also depends on them financially. Child psychologist and author Josie Levy Martin likened her experience as a child immigrant to the U.S. to the experiences of those in the mostly Latino crowd. Former Santa Barbara City Councilmember Babatunde Folayemi told them, “You are the heartbeat of this community, and I love you.”