Embracing the immigrant

Pro-reform rally in downtown Vancouver draws a crowd that surprises its organizers

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The chants echoed off storefronts and condominium walls, growing louder under the tall firs of Esther Short Park.

“Sí, se puede!” (Yes, we can!)

“Obama, escucha: Estamos a la lucha!” (Obama, listen: We are fighting!)

At times “Vancouver” was substituted for “Obama.”

America’s resharpened focus on immigration issues and potential reforms swept into downtown early Saturday evening as about 300 marchers rallied in support of immigrants.

It was Vancouver’s first taste of May Day demonstrations that have been held for several years across the United States on the hot-button issue. But there was energy in the air from more than beginners’ exuberance.

“I think Arizona did more to help the cause than anything,” said Rick Covington, 73, a lead organizer.

He meant the newly adopted Arizona state law designed to crack down on illegal immigration. Critics fear it will lead to racial profiling and increased confrontation, while both they and its backers agree the U.S. government has dodged its duty to find a remedy for America’s porous borders and illegal population.

Hence the placards for “Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” “Reform not raids,” and several others directed at Arizona residents and leaders.

Gene Finley, 67, of Woodland held up a handmade wooden sign: “Boycott Arizona.”

“It’s the only thing that I could think of,” he said. The new state law “reminds me of the pass laws of South Africa, of Germany,” he said. “I stand injustice like that, especially in America.”

Robert Andrews, a 37-year U.S. Army veteran, and his wife, Yvonne, a retired high school teacher, who live in Salmon Creek, also find Arizona’s new rules on proof of identity and residence to be onerous.

In Arizona, individuals will be unfairly questioned if they’re not white and “don’t wear the right clothes,” Robert Andrews said. “It just seems ridiculous. It’s discrimination, really.” Yvonne Andrews said reform laws should target businesses that profit from illegal workers, and not individuals.

Battle Ground resident Bill Richards also felt called to join the rally.

“The news is not good,” said Richards, 55. “The way they’re going after everybody, I’m next,” the self-described liberal Democrat said. “I feel like we’re all going to have to carry around our I.D.”

Still, Arizona’s move could hasten federal action, said Richards, a bit uneasy about what that might look like. “It’s galvanizing both sides, so I think it might (happen),” he said.

Signs and American flags battled for attention as the well-behaved group of adults, children and seniors gathered at the historic O.O. Howard House near Officer’s Row at 6 p.m., then hiked downtown.

The rally was one of nine pro-reform events organized by the One America group (http://www.weareoneamerica.org) in Washington on Saturday. The group is pushing for Congress and President Barack Obama to fulfill candidate Obama’s pledge for reform.

Covington, an Orchards resident, and his wife, Maria, 80, have worked since December to build a Clark County chapter. From an initial turnout of one guest (Latinos balk at attending meetings held in government buildings, fearing police, he said he learned), the group has grown since moving to a Minnehaha church for its meetings, held every third Monday.

Maria, who hails from New Mexico, has family and acquaintances she said would run afoul of the Arizona law.

Then there’s the young Clark County woman, an undocumented Mexican arrested on a Portland light rail line and held in a Tacoma detention center for two months, not allowed to contact her husband or young child for several days.

The couple told The Columbian their story directly, but declined to be named.

Immigration raids that split apart families are just one crisis that demands reform, Covington said: “So that people can come out of the shadows and not be afraid of reporting crimes that happened against them — to people here in Vancouver.”

Antonio Morales, 64, held a crisp American flag during the 90-minute event. A native of Michoacan, Mexico, the Fruit Valley resident has lived here 16 years and been a U.S. citizen for eight. While all his family are legal residents, he joined the march to support “all my people,” he said through an interpreter.

“I don’t like discrimination,” he added in English.

Maria Covington fretted a bit over the crowd: The group’s parade permit was for only 50 people. But it cruised quickly along mostly vacant sidewalks, at times stretching for a city block, without incident. Several motorists offered honks of encouragement.

“I’m surprised, and pleased,” she said of the turnout. “It’s a good crowd. They raised their voices.”