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Immigration Reform Activists March To Calif. Farm Country

Marchers kick off a 21-day march calling for immigration reform in Sacramento, Calif. on Monday. The 285-mile walk through California's Central Valley ended in Bakersfield at the district office of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.
Rich Pedroncelli
Marchers kick off a 21-day march calling for immigration reform in Sacramento, Calif. on Monday. The 285-mile walk through California's Central Valley ended in Bakersfield at the district office of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.

Immigrant and farm worker rights groups came from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, Calif., by the busload this week. Bakersfield, in the state's Central Valley, is farm country, and immigration is a complex issue here.

The groups were converging on the home of the third-most powerful Republican in the House, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.

Activists across the country are targeting a number of Republican members of Congress this summer, trying to pressure the House to take up the immigration reform bill passed in the Senate.

In Bakersfield, the protesters caravaned through the normally sleepy downtown, then held a rally and a march in the 100-degree heat to McCarthy's field office.

Maria Barajas, a 19-year-old recent graduate of Bakersfield High, welcomed the reinforcements.

"We've been coming here for the past, I'd say six months," she says.

Unlike the other protesters, Barajas wasn't holding a sign or beating a drum. She was just standing in a blue cap and gown.

"I want citizenship in order to go to a university," she says.

Barajas moved to Bakersfield from Mexico with her parents when she was a little girl. The big farms here that produce much of the nation's fresh produce have long relied on immigrant labor — much of it illegal. Today Latinos make up half of Bakersfield's population.

Mayor Harvey Hall stood side-by-side with farm worker rights activists on stage at a rally earlier that day. "Our country needs a vibrant, strong and stable agricultural work force that is treated with dignity and respect," he told the crowd.

Hall is a Republican. In fact, you'll find a lot of conservatives here who not only favor immigration reform, but also take a sympathetic tone when talking about people who are here illegally. Take Dean Haddock, who chairs the Kern County GOP.

"I don't want to really call it amnesty," Haddock says. "But if we come to a situation where we say, 'Look, we're glad you're here, we know you're here and we know you have needs and we know you've also produced and provided for our economy ... '"

Haddock wants to see a comprehensive immigration bill pass Congress. But he also says that the flow of illegal immigrants has to stop. The county has high unemployment, and a struggling economy. He says Bakersfield can't afford it anymore.

"The one thing that most Republicans, at least here in this area, see as the fix is securing the border," Haddock says. "Then we can go ahead and do all the other things of taking care of the people that we care about."

Make no mistake, Bakersfield and Kern County are still some of the reddest places in America. And unlike some congressional districts deeper into California's Central Valley, the area has a diverse economy, including Edwards Air Force Base and a big oil industry.

Bakersfield also has an influential Tea Party movement. Right now, McCarthy is getting just as much pressure from anti-immigration groups.

An ad running on local TV, paid for by a group called Californians for Population Stabilization, is one example. "Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy wants to bring in more immigrant workers to take jobs," the ad states. "He's even talking about legalizing 11 million illegal aliens, making it easier for them to take jobs too."

While he's opposed to taking up the Senate's version of immigration reform, McCarthy does favor a step-by-step approach. That makes sense to Gene Tackett, a former Kern County supervisor turned political consultant. He says as House majority whip, McCarthy must fall in line with the speaker.

"He may privately be working on that," Tackett says. "But he's not in a position to be able to push that because he's a soldier in this battle. He's not the general."

And anyway, Tackett, a Democrat, says McCarthy's seat is safe, whether immigration reform passes or not.

McCarthy was in the Middle East and un-reachable this week while the pro-immigrant groups were marching to his office. Barajas says he has yet to speak to protesters. She has deferred-action status, which allows children who were brought here illegally to live and work in the United States for two years without the threat of deportation. Barajas says that's not good enough.

"I want to be a surgeon one day," she says. "What's the point of having this certificate, this degree that says I'm graduated, but I don't even have the citizenship to be out there and do what I want to do?"

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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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