Immigrants call for equal rights in large but peaceful rally
in Storm Lake
Katia Barrigan remembers what it was like to get her green card. The endless trips to Omaha, Neb., where she would regularly have to wait for hours to get paperwork. The $400 fee to get the card. Now, the $400 fee when she has to renew her card every 10 years. She was in the front row of the demonstration for immigrants' rights in front of Rep. Steve King's office Monday.
While she has not read King's recent scathing editorial condemning illegal aliens as a "illegal invasion," discussion of King's all-English stance lets her know he does not support immigrant's rights. Her experience with the Immigration and Naturalization Service makes her sympathetic to immigrants who do not choose to become U.S. citizens.
"I would say we all we want is a fair chance," Barrigan said, when asked what she would say to King if she could talk to him. King's office was closed during the demonstration. "These are people who haven't done anything wrong. It is not fair to deport some of these people. They have been working in this country and when they are deported, they lose everything they have."
The protest was part of the national Day Without Immigrants, originating with a southern California Latin radio station and sparking much controversy in the immigrant community. With an estimated 33 million immigrant workers in the country, organizers want to show Congress the importance of the workers in response to proposed tough immigration laws that are being considered. Currently officials estimate there are 12 million illegal aliens in the country.
Protesters gathered in a Latino dance hall on East Railroad Street prior to the march through downtown Storm Lake, ending up on King's doorstep. Just before the march, protesters were shown videos featuring Ghandi, the holocaust and the Ku Klux Klan. Commentary for the video was in Spanish.
"We are protesting because they say we are criminals," said organizer Maria Torres, her thick Mexican accent not having diminished after 23 years in the U.S. "We come to this country so we can have a better life for our children. We are angry with everything going on. We respect everybody and we want respect in return."
She said the national protest is an effective way to show the American people how many immigrants there are in the country, and what they contribute.
Cynthia Mena disagrees. While she was at the protest, she does not believe the boycott sends the right message.
"We are here to work and for our kids to get a better education, and so we are not going to work and keeping our kids out of school."
Mena is not an illegal alien, but says many members of her family are. She said aliens come to America to work, not cause trouble.
As a result of the national protest, Storm Lake's Tyson plant closed for the day. Worker Brian Book organized a protest of the boycott earlier in the day. He and five other people stood in front of King's office behind barricades set up by police for the protest.
"We have to stand up," he said. "Even if there are only a few of us, we have to stand up for the U-S-of A."
As the immigrant protesters took to the street, a police car traveled in the front of the crowd to stop traffic. The protesters held numerous American flags, a few Mexican flags, and signs, some written in Spanish. The attitude was not violent or aggressive. Many people smiled as they marched around downtown Storm Lake chanting "Si se puede, si se puede." - Yes we can, yes we can.
"I have plenty to say about this," said one bystander. "But I don't have any comment."
Other bystanders, many framed in the doors of their businesses, said if workers are legal, there is no problem. If they are not, they should be deported.
As the protesters gathered in front of King's office, behind a separate barricade from the anti-immigration protesters, Book yelled "Boycott Mexico!" to passing cars. Members of the pro-immigrant march seeing this began yelling, asking the anti-immigrant protesters why they felt the way they did.
"Boycott Mexico!" Book yelled again to another passing car. The pro-immigrant crowd began chanting, "We still love you, we still love you."
Officers monitoring the event kept things orderly, but none were afraid of any trouble starting. The protesters, for the most part, seemed to be having a good time, smiling and spinning Mexican metracas, a noisemaker.
Chris Harlan was videotaping the event. He commented he was part Native American and wondered what his ancestors would have thought of the immigration bill.
"If Indians let Europeans come into the country, the Europeans should let everybody who wants to come," he said. "This is a melting pot, not a boiling pot."
Angry workers counter-protest as immigrants walk out in SL
Saenpy Sonphanthabansoup came to America 19 years ago from Laos, looking for the American dream in action. He took the Constitution test and got a green card. He began working at the plant that is now Tyson about 16 years ago. On Monday he and his family stood out as they joined about 50 of his co-workers to protest the Day Without Immigrants.
"I came here to work and live a life of freedom," the Tyson meatcutter said, his Laotian accent still thick. "I know they are poor over there and they can make good money over here. My country is poor too, but they can't do that. They have to do it the right way."
The controversial Day Without Immigrants demonstration asked immigrants not to go to work and not to purchase anything on Monday. The promise of immigrant workers not going to work Monday was one of the reasons cited for the closure of the Tyson Plant Monday.
The skies threatened to pour on the crowd and there was a chill in the air as the protesters, carrying an assortment of American flags and placards denouncing illegal immigrant's rights, gathered at the Little League diamond across the street from the Lutheran Immigration Aid Center. Storm Lake police officers talked to the protesters briefly, telling them what they could legally do during the protest. The crowd remained calm and well behaved throughout the two hour protest.
"We are protecting our rights while they are against us," protester Robin Book said. "We are standing up for America."
She said America needs to protect the Texas border and not allow illegals to cross. As she spoke, other members of the group yelled their feelings.
"We need to stand up and not be cowards," one yelled. "America was not built by cowards."
On the news Monday morning, Brian Book saw illegal aliens protesting in Colorado, screaming 'hell no, we won't go.' He also saw a single man counter protesting. He hoped for more during the Storm Lake protest. As his friends from Tyson, all of whom lost a day's pay of about $100 due to the Day Without Immigrant's closure of the Tyson Plant, gathered, they discussed the reasons they were there.
"My grandmother came over from Denmark," Brian Book said. "When she arrived in America, she had to take tests and learn English. Now the company has to spend money on an interpreter. They don't get interpreters for everyone. Just the Hispanics."
He commented in Mexico people entering illegally are regularly sentenced to two years in prison.
As the protest made its way down Flindt Drive to the main gate of the Tyson plant, Storm Lake police officers blocked traffic around a gap in the sidewalk so the workers, signs in hand, could safely walk in the street. Cars driving by honked. While the plant was closed, semi-trailers still came and went during the protest, also blowing their horns. Some drivers gave a thumbs up to the protesters, other expressed negative sentiments to the protest. Each honk got a yell from the protesters.
Members of the protest looked at cars driving by to see if any of their co-workers were coming to join the rally. They noticed one of the assistant plant managers parked across the street. He drove away before anyone could talk to him.
The protesters work with immigrants every day and have gotten to know some. Four-year Tyson veteran Jerry Wilson, sporting a sign reading "America, Love it or leave it," said many people in town that are not as familiar with Hispanics are concerned about their presence.
"There are a lot of people who are scared to death," he said. "I was in Wal-Mart last night and I was the only white person there. They are afraid to go out at night."
Wilson recognizes the immigrant workers as a necessity for business and says, like all the protesters, his concern is with illegal immigrants, not naturalized citizens. He says if Hispanics came to America to work, he wishes they would work and not complain.
"This place could not run without them," Wilson said, motioning to Tyson.
In addition to anti-immigration signs, many carried cards supporting Rep. Steve King. Last week King wrote a letter to the editor condemning illegal immigration. Many also carried copies of the letter.
As the rally closed at noon, people began making their way back to their cars.
"We are going out shopping and spend our money in Storm Lake," Brian Book said. "We are going to do the opposite of what the Mexicans are doing."