Immigration reform advocates turned out in force as promised Wednesday to demand that Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy promptly call for a vote on a bill that would offer immigrants a chance at citizenship.
An orderly crowd police estimated at about 1,500 activists from around the state rallied in the hot sun at Yokuts Park before marching a short distance to the offices of Rep. McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, who was away on a trip to Israel planned months earlier. Supporters claimed more than twice that number turned out.
Things briefly got tense as a group of about 40 anti-immigration demonstrators waiting outside the congressman's office confronted the much larger group's arrival with chants including "Deportation!"
The two groups' differences seemed momentarily to dissolve as both sides waved American flags and shouted "USA! USA!" at each other.
Bakersfield police, working with private security provided by pro-reform groups, ushered immigrant-rights advocates away from the area to avoid a traffic hazard. The gathering dispersed shortly thereafter, at about 2:30 p.m., some four hours after supporters met at staging areas.
"It's probably one of the more organized groups that I've ever dealt with in my career," Bakersfield Police Sgt. Will McNeal said of the reform advocates.
The rally kicked off with live music, food vendors and processions by various labor unions, immigrant rights groups and others carrying pro-reform banners and large American flags.
Speakers directly called on McCarthy, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, to push for a vote soon on immigration reform. Their primary request was that any such bill include a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country without authorization.
Among the more charismatic speakers was Eliseo Medina, secretary treasurer of the Service Employees International Union. He asked for an end to a national immigration policy that divides families, endangers individuals who cross the U.S.-Mexican border illegally and leads to crops dying in the fields for want of farmworkers.
"Rep. McCarthy, we are asking for your help," he said. "But in November 2014, we are going to march to the polls and we are going to vote."
Another speaker, Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, elicited roars from the crowd with her pleas for compassionate reform.
"We want nothing less than citizenship, because that's what we deserve!" she shouted.
The rally came at a time of intense political pressure on McCarthy. In addition to continuing agitation by immigrant advocates, farm groups including the Kern County Farm Bureau Inc. are seeking changes such as new temporary work visas that would give growers an adequate, legal workforce.
Wednesday's event was foreshadowed by a smaller group that gathered outside McCarthy's office July 11 to warn of further demonstrations if he did not push for a House vote on the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate in June.
The bill would increase spending on border security and institute an electronic employment verification system designed to deter unauthorized immigration going forward.
The proposal would allow unauthorized immigrants already here to apply for permanent residency, and eventually citizenship, if they pay fines, fees and any back taxes, providing they pass a background check. Special provisions would benefit farmworkers and immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
McCarthy has acknowledged the need to fix the "broken" immigrant system now in place, though he rejects the idea of a full House vote on the Senate bill. He has also spoken in support of a guest worker program.
On Wednesday he issued this statement: "I think that it is always healthy to have a dialogue on the important issues of the day, and I welcome folks coming to visit Bakersfield.
"While I have met with many groups across the spectrum of the immigration reform debate, in the end, I value the input of my constituents in the 23rd Congressional District most.
"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."
Anti-immigration forces are ramping up pressure on McCarthy as well. On Tuesday, a Santa Barbara-based group called Californians for Population Stabilization announced plans to attack what it sees as the congressman's support for legitimizing immigrant workers at a time of high unemployment.
The group said it is buying television and radio ads in Bakersfield asking why McCarthy would support changes it claims will increase the public assistance burden on U.S. taxpayers. Spokesman Joe Guzzardi said the group waged similar media campaigns against Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.
Guzzardi attended Wednesday's rally and asserted in an interview that continued immigration only undermines the demonstrators' cause of equitable treatment for immigrant workers.
"I firmly believe that without the border secured, that this (effort to allow citizenship to existing immigrants) will never end," he said.
Bakersfield resident Gene Davis, 78, agreed. He said offering citizenship to immigrant workers hasn't worked in the past.
"Too many holes, too many things that are wrong with it," he said. "It's not a cure-all."
Demonstrating close to Davis as part of the anti-reform group in front of McCarthy's office, Peruvian immigrant Anita Hynds blamed the recent recession on immigrants.
"They should come legal as they did with me," said Hynds, a resident of Orange County.
Two local elected officials spoke in support of immigration reform at the rally: Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall and Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez.
Perez touted reform as a measure that would give hope to families, while Hall said America was built by the "diversity, drive and ingenuity of immigrants."
A participant in Wednesday's rally, longtime farmworker and Madera resident Margarita Ordaz, 62, said in Spanish that she hopes the event touches McCarthy's heart. Too many families have been split by deportation.
"It's very sad," she said.
Still more activists are headed to Bakersfield in support of immigration reform.
In an effort called Pilgrimage for a Pathway to Citizenship, 11 representatives of faith-based organizations left Sacramento Sunday planning to walk 285 miles over the course of three weeks, culminating with a visit to McCarthy's office Sept. 2.