Immigration reform advocates rally in Vancouver

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 
photoMarianna Cruz, 11, dances with a traditional Mexican dance group Wednesday during an immigration reform rally at Esther Short Park. Hers was one of several dancing and musical performances at the event.
photoAlejandra Silva Hernandez, who came to the U.S. when she was 8 years old, speaks at Wednesday's rally.

Vancouver Interim Police Chief Chris Sutter and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt want residents to know that even if they aren’t U.S. citizens, they’re still important members of the community who deserve access to public services and American opportunities.

“We are here to protect all people in Vancouver,” Sutter said. “If you have a problem, I want you to call me. If you have an emergency, I want you to call 911, because we’re here to serve you.”

Sutter’s comments prompted cheers and applause from a crowd of 200 in Esther Short Park on Wednesday evening during an immigration-rights rally. The event kicked off with a march to the park that began outside the Vancouver office of U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas.

The march, organized by the group One America, was one of several taking place in cities across Washington, including Seattle, Spokane, Walla Walla, Wenatchee and Yakima. One America is hoping to create momentum around a bipartisan immigration reform bill introduced recently in the U.S. Senate.

The bill would tighten up the border between the U.S. and Mexico and create a pathway to citizenship for people who immigrated to the U.S. illegally. The bill isn’t perfect, One America says, but it’s a good start.

Speakers at Wednesday’s rally included 23-year-old Vancouver woman Alejandra Silva Hernandez, a senior at the the University of Washington who said her dreams of going to medical school remain in limbo because she can’t gain citizenship.

Silva Hernandez’s family is originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, and she came to the U.S. when she was just 8 years old. She often was the only Latino student in her class, and “I had to learn English fast,” she said.

After grasping the language quickly, “I began to believe in myself,” she said. She soon set her sights on becoming a doctor, possibly a pediatrician or a gynecologist.

But without citizenship, Silva Hernandez hasn’t applied to medical school. A presidential executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals could keep her studying in the U.S. for a couple of years, “but after that, it all depends on the next president,” she said.

Families in the Vancouver community face a “moral and humanitarian crisis” because many immigrants who want to become citizens can’t, Leavitt told the crowd. One America estimated that there are 11 million people living in the U.S. who don’t have citizenship, and they are making positive contributions to American society, members of the organization said.

To Southwest Washington’s representatives, “we say to them: Look at our faces, and hear our voices. It’s time for the debate to stop,” Leavitt said. “It’s time to stop the uncertainty.”

The speakers Wednesday were woven in with traditional Mexican dances and music, and with protest chants in Spanish. Participants held signs stating: “We are human and we have rights”; “No more deportation”; and “Keep families together.”

As he marched Wednesday evening, longtime Vancouver resident Javier Navarro said he moved to the U.S. at age 2. He gained citizenship after President Ronald Reagan offered amnesty to millions of immigrants in the 1980s.

But, Navarro said, others aren’t so lucky. They grow up in the U.S. because their parents move here, then they are deported “to a country they don’t even know or recognize,” where it’s difficult to survive, he said.

Herrera Beutler on immigration

One America members said they hope Herrera Beutler will ultimately support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Last month, the congresswoman’s spokesman said Herrera Beutler is pleased that there are leaders from both parties addressing immigration.

“It’s important to note that the sponsors of the Senate immigration bill have promised a full, open process for the legislation, so it will be amended and go through the hearings process and will likely look significantly different by the time it earns Senate approval and reaches the House,” her spokesman, Casey Bowman, said by email. “At that time, she’ll give the bill full consideration.”

In an interview in November, Herrera Beutler said her party should take a different tone when discussing immigration.

“For two years, I’ve said in my caucus: ‘You can believe what you want to believe, but our tone, our approach, is critical. Period,’” she said. “As a Hispanic who’s been elected federally, I think that we have a tremendous opportunity to build a relationship, whether it’s with Hispanics or just immigrants in general.”

Herrera Beutler hasn’t committed to specific immigration policies, but she has said: “If we do our job and make sure there is a secure border, north and south, then we need a system whereby people can come here. That is one of the strengths of our nation’s history, is that we are a nation of immigrants.”

Herrera Beutler, who is in Washington state this week, did not attend the rally. She did have members from her office meet with immigration reform advocates before the march began. They collected written comments for the congresswoman to consider.

“She supports any group’s right to be heard and to make its priorities known,” Bowman said.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com