It takes political courage in this town to have a mayor publicly state that he supports comprehensive immigration reform to address the country's challenge of what to do with 11 million or so undocumented immigrants. That's what Bakersfield mayor Harvey Hall did when he was among a group of speakers March 24 at Jastro Park.
"It is time to eliminate the divisions among us and offer attitudes of unity, caring, love, kindness, compassion and justice thus creating a clear pathway to legal residency and a track to citizenship," the mayor said as the crowd cheered.
The event at the park was a rally and march to support federal legislation currently being hashed out in Washington over immigration reform. A bipartisan group of eight senators is expected to soon present a bill for debate in Congress.
More than 1,000 people showed up that Sunday morning including other local politicos, families, students, an astronaut, clergy, teachers, professors and union representatives. It was organized by Kern Coalition for Citizenship, a group of immigration activists. Its motto is "The pathway to citizenship passes through Bakersfield."
After the rally, the crowd started marching to the Liberty Bell at Chester and Truxtun avenues, making its way down residential streets with banners, U.S. flags and homemade signs calling for legislation that leads to citizenship. At the head of the march was Mayor Hall. There have been other similar events in Bakersfield including a huge march a few years back during the Bush era and I don't recall mayor Hall participating. Perhaps he wasn't asked to participate then. So why now? I jumped to the head of the line and asked his honor.
"I'm a mayor for all of the people and we need immigration reform," the mayor said as he briskly marched down the street while I tried to take notes and keep up with his quick pace. I had been running around snapping pictures and interviewing people as they marched, so I was somewhat out of breath.
But make no mistake about the political sensitivity of this issue. Few, if any, elected Republicans dare to publicly state support for a pathway to citizenship for those undocumented immigrants who may qualify. And I can't think of a single local Republican to take such a bold stand. Was the mayor at all concerned about political backlash from the extreme right for his support of undocumented immigrants?
"No, I'm not interested in retribution," Hall said.
Local immigration activist Jess Nieto said, "I am sure that he probably surprised many of his Republican brethren but I truly believe he spoke from the heart without a concern for his political future."
Others had a similar take, noting the pathway to citizenship indeed passes through Bakersfield because the city is home to Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who as House majority whip is the No. 3 GOP guy in the House of Representatives.
Said Cal State Bakersfield sociology professor Gonzalo Santos: "I hope Representative Kevin McCarthy, who is supposed to represent all the people in his district, and as a leader of Congress, all the people in the country, finally steps forward now, after years of temporizing on, or blocking, this issue of the foremost interest to his large Latino constituency, and follow the lead of Mayor Hall in championing immigration reform for the right reasons, not merely for political expediency."
Truth be told, I was at first skeptical when I heard that Mayor Hall had agreed to speak and march at this event, thinking the organizers were pulling my leg. Some time ago, the mayor disappointed Bakersfield's gay community by caving in to pressure from conservative groups. Hall was asked by local gay activist Whitney Weddell for a Gay Pride Day proclamation. Hall agreed and intended to make the declaration during a Kern County Gay Pride event in downtown Bakersfield. When the predictable tide of negative calls and emails started rolling into his office, Hall backtracked and there was never any such proclamation given.
First elected to office in 2000, Harvey Hall has been re-elected several times including last year, making him the longest serving mayor in Bakersfield's history. After such a long tenure, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Hall is thinking of new ventures once he completes this latest term as mayor and can now take a public stance on the more controversial issues.
-- Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.