Immigrants in California celebrated an important milestone this year. For twenty years, they have advocated for and fought hard for immigrant rights in the State of California.
At the state Capitol last Monday, hundreds of immigrant leaders and supporters from cities spanning as far south as San Diego and throughout the Sacramento region, gathered to celebrate the 20th Annual Immigrant Day.
A boisterous morning rally kicked off the days activities. Immigrant youth coalitions’, organizers and leaders held posters that read ‘Undocumented and Unafraid.’ Others held banners that read ‘Jesus was also an immigrant.’
Many wore black shirts with the hashtag #Health4All. Almost all of them carried a piece of paraphernalia to identify themselves as proud immigrants of California.
The group convened at the State Capitol with the purpose of visiting legislative offices to urge support for a platform of bills to hold the federal government accountable for existing deportation programs that are pulling families apart, expanding access to health care for all Californians and for an extension of protection for workers’ and civil rights.
Advocates also pushed for a budget proposal that will help undocumented Californians apply for both citizenship and deportation relief.
During a contentious election year where much of the rhetoric stemming from the Republican party and its candidates running for elected office has been focused on denigrating immigrants and their families, the tone from California lawmakers is starkly different, said Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León.
“I want to make it very clear to those who continue to use immigrants as their scapegoats and continue to demonize our people that we will not tolerate it. To Donald Trump, I say, this is California and in this state we do not build walls, we build bridges,” said De León.
Addressing the crowd of supporters on the West Steps of the State Capitol, De León spoke about the sacrifices his single mother made while he grew up in Logan Heights, and as a result, can fully understand and identify with the plight of immigrants who often leave their country of origin through no fault of their own.
“You are not beggars. You don’t come to this country to beg. You work hard from sun up to sun down. You sweat, you toil, you don’t complain. Many of you crossed the border looking for a better life and in that process, looking to better the human condition. You contribute to this country like any other American,” said De León.
The month of May has been a historic month for many California lawmakers, he added. A few weeks ago, Senator Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens toured the state to push for SB 4 and SB 75, two measures that were signed by the Governor and will allow an estimated 170,000 undocumented children in California be eligible for coverage under the new “Health for All Kids” law.
The children will be covered under the new Medi-Cal expansion for low-income undocumented children beginning May 16.
“On May 16, California became the largest state to provide health care to all low-income children, regardless of immigration status,” said Lara earlier this month. “With the promise of a healthy start, these kids will be able to live productive lives and be afforded every opportunity to succeed. This milestone recognizes our state’s commitment to healthy communities and is a major victory in our push towards achieving true health for all.”
California Senator Ed Hernández, who is the Chair for the Senate Committee on Health, spoke of his grandparents journey from México to the United States and the importance of fulfilling the California Dream.
“My grandpa came to this country with no education. He came seeking work and he worked very hard to buy a home and to educate his kids. He wanted my parents and his grandchildren to have more than what he had,” said Hernández.
Growing up, Hernández only had one goal in mind— to serve the health care needs of the community he grew up in. Becoming an optometrist and a local businessman, he never imagined he would run for elected office until the desire to improve access to health care for low-income communities pushed him to run for office.
Hernández believes immigrants contribute more to California than any other segment of the population.
“You come here to fulfill the American Dream and that is to be admired, respected and valued,” said Hernández.
De León told immigrant supporters that he and his colleagues are dedicated to fighting for working and immigrant families.
“We will continue to fight for the most vulnerable and the most marginalized. But, let’s not be victims. We need to send a strong message this November— the strongest message we can possibly make will be at the ballot box. Let’s show those who spew hateful rhetoric that we have the power to vote and kick them out,” said De León.
This year’s Immigrant Day comes at a crucial juncture for California’s 10 million immigrants. Years of community organizing and advocacy have transformed the state from anti-immigrant to pro-immigrant and created a strong blueprint of inclusive state policies.
Immigrant Day began in May 1996 in the aftermath of discriminatory measures such as 1994’s Proposition 187, which sought to persecute undocumented immigrants and deny them both education and health care; then, federal laws were enacted in 1996 which effectively excluded many immigrants from vital public programs providing care and support.
Since then, the courage and determination of immigrant communities have transformed the state.
And yet, despite these great strides, deeply hateful rhetoric nationally, along with the Obama administration’s new plans for harsh raids targeting Central American refugees, have sparked pain and anger in many communities.
Many immigrants await their fate with the pending Supreme Court decision that could bring deportation relief to millions, but also leave many people behind.
“Twenty years ago, in the shadow of hate and discrimination, immigrant Californians came together in Sacramento to stand up for their families, their communities, and basic human rights for all people. The resilience of these courageous leaders forever changed our state. This year, in the face of the twin threats of rising hate speech in the national discourse and draconian deportation tactics including harsh raids, California must continue to lead boldly and bravely forward,” said Cynthia Buiza, Executive Director of the California Immigrant Policy Center, which helps coordinate Immigrant Day.
This year, immigrant advocates pushed for a series of measures, one of which helps immigrants apply for citizenship.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendón, D-Paramount, said the California legislature will continue to protect the rights, health and safety of all Californians.
“Immigrants are a vital source in our communities and to our economy. We will continue to hold the belief that our state will help all those who believe in it,” said Rendón.