BAKERSFIELD — More than a thousand immigration activists marched on Bakersfield on Wednesday in one of a series of protests around the nation this summer in favor of an immigration overhaul.
The march, which triggered a counter-protest by groups that oppose more lenient immigration laws, targeted U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield). Organizers are seeking to persuade McCarthy, the third-most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives, to support legislation that would allow the 11 million immigrants here illegally to apply for citizenship.
Wednesday's protest was part of a wave of sit-ins, rallies and other actions across the country aimed at Republican Congress members in their home districts during the August recess. It drew a caravan of protesters from Los Angeles that included four buses and nearly 100 cars.
As the caravan drove through Bakersfield on the way to the rally site, one protest organizer, Maria Elena Durazo, the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, urged the driver of her vehicle to honk in support of fellow activists holding signs on the side of the street.
"Come on, Margarita, honk, honk!" Durazo said. "I'll pay for it if you get a ticket."
After a program of speeches and live music in a city park, the protesters marched to McCarthy's office, where a smaller contingent that included Durazo and labor leader Dolores Huerta went inside. A Catholic priest said a prayer, and workers delivered a bucket of cleaning supplies to one of McCarthy's aides as a reminder of the work immigrants often do.
Outside, about two dozen people held signs and chanted "USA" at a counter-protest organized by the Bakersfield Tea Party and a group opposed to the immigration overhaul. One activist, Cathi Chrisco, said she was offended that people outside McCarthy's district had traveled there to try to sway him.
"Most of those people don't even live in our district," she said.
Chrisco's group, Bakersfield Act for America, opposes legislation that would allow people to apply for citizenship who are in the country illegally. "People need to abide by our Constitution," she said.
She also visited McCarthy's office to deliver her message.
Groups pushing for an immigration overhaul have asked members of Congress to vote on a bipartisan citizenship bill passed by the Senate earlier this summer, or to craft a similar law that achieves the same thing.
Their sticking point for any new immigration law is that it allow people here illegally to apply for citizenship, as long as they meet certain qualifications.
In the past, McCarthy has said that "we should not provide any amnesty that would benefit those who defy our laws and enter the United States illegally."
On Wednesday he issued a statement that cast further doubt on the likelihood that he will push for a vote on the Senate bill or support an overhaul that includes a path to citizenship.
"I have long said that our immigration system is broken, but rather than take up the Senate bill, the House will move in a step-by-step approach that first secures the border," said McCarthy, who is traveling in the Middle East this week.
Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said she was disappointed with McCarthy's statement but said she is hopeful that further pressure will change his mind.
"We're not going to take 'no' for an answer," she said.
Her group and others have already held at least 10 protests in Bakersfield on the issue and believe there are other members of Congress they can influence.
On Tuesday, activists launched a large canvassing operation in the Orange County district of Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton).