By Katia Protsenko & Rachel Tennenbaum
Politics & Culture Editor, Gender/Sexuality Editor
At 4 p.m., the Watsonville plaza was near empty. With the rally not set to start until 6 p.m., the park was tranquil in the afternoon sun, its benches filled with day workers who probably would not find employment that day. Nearby a few television stations had parked their vans, cameras cocked and ready for action.
For the Watsonville Brown Berets, however, 4 p.m. was prime time.
The group, whose self-described goal is to service the community, set up a table on the sidewalk facing the plaza and a circle of red-upholstered chairs outside of a light blue building. Now they were waiting. Waiting for lawyers, waiting for people with questions. On this May Day, it was their job to bring the two together.
Lawyers Doug Keegan, Alisa Thomas and Hilda Berra spent the afternoon giving free 10-minute consultations about immigration law and procedure. The walk-in clients had questions about applying for legal residence, application-processing timelines and many specialized situations.
Brown Beret Carlie Domingues was one of the organizers of the lawyer visit. While this was not the first year that the Brown Berets offered free legal consultations, it was the first time that it coincided with the May Day activities.
“This is real,” Domingues said of the staggering numbers of undocumented Latino residents. “It’s happening to people who are brown.”
To raise awareness of the event, the Brown Berets posted fliers, made public service announcements and sent out a press release, but the majority of people learned of the legal consultations by walking past the table, many on their way to the May Day rally across the street.
Delfina Pitalua was one of those people. While she seemed a bit hesitant to speak with reporters, she admitted that meeting with the lawyers definitely helped her.
“I met with them for 10 minutes to get my papers in order,” she said. “They told me to come back again in three weeks.”
She left to go back to the park, divulging that she had left her son jumping about in the blow-up castle.
Cristina Velasquez approached the building a few minutes later. A Watsonville local, she too had heard about the free lawyer service while walking around the plaza. For Velasquez, concerns centered more around her partner and his residency status.
“He has no papers,” she said, “and I want to know how to help him.”
Velasquez herself has legal residence within the United States, but she fears for her partner. She explained that the two have a child together and worry about potential run-ins with “la migra,” the immigration police.
“I’m afraid to think that one day he might not come home,” she said.
During her meeting, lawyers told Velasquez that the best decision was for her to marry her partner. This was a choice which she was originally hesitant to make, but soon realized she had no other option.
“It’s for the best. For school, for work,” she said. “So that we don’t have to be scared anymore.”
Meanwhile, the plaza had started to buzz with activity. A band, set up in the corner of the park, played music while kids sat on the grass and made signs. Ranging from the familiar “No Human Being Is Illegal,” to other signs blatantly showing the animosity felt toward immigration officers, such as a sign reading “Fuck La Chota” (fuck the police).
According to lawyers Keegan and Thomas, the commonly felt fear and resentment stems from a lack of knowledge about current immigration laws and procedures.
“I find that a lot of times, CIS [Citizenship and Immigration Services] are quite cooperative and they do what they can within the law,” Thomas said. “Just explaining what the law is takes away a lot of that anger and resentment.”
Keegan added that speaking to a lawyer alleviated many concerns among a population that often relied on second-hand accounts, horror stories or rumors.
“I think people trust us,” Keegan said. “They may have heard rumors, but because they have developed a trust in what we have to tell them, it helps with the anxiety.”
While a majority of their duties on Thursday were to provide information, Keegan and Thomas encouraged awareness of immigration law and procedure among U.S. citizens. He says that only when citizens understand the time, cost and effort necessary can they truly come to terms with the inadequacy of current immigration law.
“We’re not going to get change until there’s pressure from that segment of the population,” Keegan said. “We’re hoping that the message gets through to people that we need a humane system, we need a system that works, we need a system that responds to the reality that exists in our communities.”