Vowing to keep pressure on U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and force a vote on immigration reform in the U.S. House, more than 2,000 supporters from around the state converged downtown Monday to rally for immigrant rights.
At a two-hour gathering in the Fox Theater and then a shorter meeting outside McCarthy's local office, speakers alternated between emotional testimonies about "the gigantic tragedy" of the current immigration system and excoriating McCarthy.
McCarthy, the House Majority Whip and third-ranking Republican, had returned to Washington, D.C. Sunday, according to a press release from his office.
The "Campaign for Citizenship" weekend was organized by PICO California, a statewide faith-based organization that includes congregations throughout California, including Faith in Action Kern County.
Monday's events followed the conclusion of the "Pilgrimage for a Pathway to Citizenship," in which 15 people walked 285 miles over 21 days from Sacramento to McCarthy's office on Empire Drive to bring attention to immigration reform.
The marchers were again the focus at the Fox Theater, entering to the song "We Shall Not Be Moved" while each carried a lit candle. They assembled on stage along with numerous clergy.
Amid chants of "Si se puede" and "Donde esta McCarthy," speakers called for a stronger more focused effort to move the House of Representatives toward a vote on immigration reform, and mobilizing voters to contact political leaders.
Others hearkened to another major movement in American history.
Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein of Temple Beth El in Bakersfield compared the effort to bring citizenship to the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country without authorization to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington.
"Fifty years ago they marched for freedom and equality," she said, "...for the right to come out of the shadows."
An empty chair was left on the stage to signify McCarthy's absence.
In a statement sent Monday afternoon by his Washington office, McCarthy said "Rather than take up the rushed Senate bill, I believe we must fix our broken immigration system through a step-by-step legislative approach that focuses on securing the border first."
The statement went on to say that McCarthy had returned to Washington to moderate a classified briefing with congressional members on the Syria situation and to meet with President Obama and his national security team on Tuesday.
"We are disappointed that after we walked for 21 days he was unable to join us tonight," said Josth Stenner, 22, of Bakersfield, one of the marchers, and the only member in his family of five that is a U.S. citizen.
Gonzalo Santos, 63, a sociology professor at CSU Bakersfield who was also one of the pilgrims, said "power has not listened to us." He called on those in attendance "to find ways to get in their way until they listen to us."
Attendees arrived by bus from more than a dozen California cities, including San Jose, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Bernadino, Stockton, Fresno and Oakland.
Jesus Ruiz arrived on a bus from San Jose. The 27-year-old, a high school graduate in the U.S. since age 4, already has been deported once, along with his father. He recrossed the border illegally and worked for several years before agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained him. He is fighting deportation to Mexico.
"This is my home," Ruiz said. "I graduated high school. I've held a job. I have no criminal record.
"Because of people like this today it shows anything is possible."
From the Fox Theater, about two dozen buses brought people to McCarthy's office for a short ceremony. Members of Bakersfield's Tea Party had initially planned to be in attendance but at 6 p.m., only Roy Bustamante was present.
"Personally, I think there should be some adjustment to the immigration law," said the former city council candidate. "But I think they should go and get legal and not check off a little box that says, 'OK, now you're a citizen.'"