The California Central Coast has one of the highest concentrations of immigrants in the nation. According to research by UC Santa Cruz sociologist and veteran immigration reform activist Paul Johnston, approximately 80,000 people live and work without documentation in the Central Coast.
Immigration has become a hot button issue in 2013. Both the White House and a bipartisan senate commission have floated proposals for nationwide immigration reform.
“One thing we do know is that people tend to assume that comprehensive immigration reform will solve our problems,” Johnston said. “We have to be prepared for continuing human rights challenges for years to come.”
Activists have started immigration reform movements in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz Counties in the past few years to give voice to communities of undocumented immigrants and to obtain rights for immigrants that are equal to those with citizenship.
Action groups that organized demonstrations and events to promote immigrant rights were created by the Santa Cruz County Community Coalition to Overcome Racism. These action groups later became the Coalition for Immigration Reform/Central Coast, a collective of 12 organizations in Santa Cruz County. Through involvement with a national union — the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — the local coalition intends to pressure California state senators for fairer policies in the upcoming comprehensive immigration reform bill.
“We’re just at the beginning phase of organizing and mobilizing,” Johnston said. “It’s a movement that is erupting.”
The number of meetings and demonstrations planned by these organizations in the coming months will lead up to May Day, otherwise known as International Workers’ Day. According to Johnston, May Day became a date for national immigrants’ protests starting in 2006.
The first event — a solidarity march sponsored by the United Steel Workers — will be held on March 24 at the Cesar E. Chavez Park in Salinas. The march will bring together local and national unions, activists who support the immigrant-education enabling Dream Act (DREAMers) as well as other immigration reform activists, said Teamsters 890 representative and 2012 UCSC alumna Veronica Diaz.
“I think it’s great that these [groups] are finally merging,” Diaz said. “It goes to show that it’s not just a cross-cultural thing — it’s across the ages. It’s about time DREAMers are united with the labor movement.”
In another step toward reform, the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project (SCCIP) is helping eligible local immigrants who are undocumented obtain Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Passed in 2012, DACA allows undocumented immigrants to apply for the rights to obtain a license, a California identification card and permission to stay in the United States with a work permit. Although this application does not guarantee citizenship, the program covers a range of immigrants from ages 15 to 31, who came to the United States before the age of 16, before June 15, 2007, who have no more than three misdemeanors and have continuously lived here for two years, said SCCIP program director Doug Keegan.
Even with the SCCIP’s efforts to hold forums and application workshops for those who are eligible for the program, there are still disparities between the number of those who are eligible and those who are signing up.
“Some people are fearful. They may fear that [Homeland Security] uses it to arrest them or deport them,” Keegan said. “But it’s a struggle to continue to live without any type of legal status, so we strongly urge people to register.”
According to Johnston, Santa Cruz County is one of the top 10 counties in the state in terms of the number of immigrants deported. Consequently, deportation is a commonly feared problem the coalition wants to fix by pressuring the sheriff and County Board of Supervisors to change their policies, said Santa Cruz Immigration Action Group team leader Tomas Alejo.
“We don’t want to be in the top ten,” Alejo said. “I think that’s wrong, especially in a county that calls itself liberal.”
The Immigration Reform Coalition is working in conjunction with the SEIU to bring local issues to a state and national level.
“I think this is a first step to try to open the path to citizenship. We can sit back but it will take a really long time,” Alejo said. “Being at the table, we can constantly remind [state leaders] that [immigration reform] isn’t to be forgotten.”