In Rep. McCarthy’s District, Two Communities Divided

In Rep. McCarthy’s District, Two Communities Divided

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above photo: Daniela Miramontes at the Bakersfield Pride event. (Alfredo Camacho/South Kern Sol)

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- While national LGBTQ organizations are joining forces with immigrant rights activists to push for immigration reform, in the conservative town of Bakersfield, Calif., the two groups remain more divided than ever.

Bakersfield is home to House Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy -- one of a number of House Republicans who opposes immigration reform even though he represents a district with a large number of immigrants. McCarthy is seen as one of the potential swing votes for immigration reform in the House, and in recent months, immigration reform activists have been targeting the town -- through caravans, marches and protests – to pressure him to support immigration reform.

Only three Republicans currently support the House’s immigration reform bill HR 15, including California GOP House Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao.

Women Stage Sit-In, Call for McCarthy to Move On Immigration Reform

BAKERSFIELD – The Central Valley became ground zero in the struggle for immigrant rights last week, when a coalition of women activists gathered outside of Congressman and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy's office in downtown Bakersfield to take part in a demonstration and act of civil disobedience to demand an end to deportations, and congressional action on federal immigration reform.

“We came here because McCarthy is an influential man in Washington who can put immigration reform to a vote,” said Estela Garcia, a demonstrator at the event. “We're here to make our voices heard and to make sure McCarthy knows that families are being torn apart.”

The demonstration, which took place on Wednesday, November 6, included a march, singing, and testimonials by those affected by the deportations. Some demonstrators also staged a sit-in inside McCarthy’s office.

McCarthy represents a congressional district in the Central Valley with a large population of Latinos, yet has thus far refused to commit himself to the issue.

When McCarthy’s staff told the demonstrators that the congressman was meeting with a South Korean ambassador and would not be able to see them, many committed to staying until he arrived. One demonstrator said her husband was deported several years ago, adding that after waiting that long to see him, she could wait a few hours for McCarthy's return.

“We will stay here until he hears our voice,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of CHIRLA, a Los Angeles based immigrant rights organization.

McCarthy did finally meet with the protesters in his office, just after 11pm.

McCarthy promised to move immigration reform forward by next year, but he did not sign a pledge to push for a house vote on immigration reform by this year, said the UFW’s Maria Machuca, because he doesn’t think there is enough time -- there are only 13 days left until the end of the year.

A number of organizations were represented at the day’s action, including the Dolores Huerta Foundation (DHF), United Farm Workers (UFW), and Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). The participation of other non-Latino organizations, such as Korean Resource Center (KRC), demonstrated the ethnic diversity within an immigrant rights movement that is often viewed as monolithic.

“We don't see immigration specifically as a Latino issue,” explained Jenny Seon of KRC, based in Los Angeles. “The immigration issues affecting Latinos now affect all of us, and have been affecting all of our communities for a long time now.”

At the heart of the protest were the compelling stories told by immigrant women who are fighting to keep their families together.

“We also begin our mobilization from the home,” said Ramona Felix of Women Farm Worker Leaders. “It is women who face lower wages, higher work hours and sexual harassment and assault at work, all because of a lack of comprehensive immigration reform.”

“Because we're women we are overlooked and brushed aside, yet we are the ones who bear the brunt of these policies,” Felix concluded. “This is why we are the ones to act.”

--By Alfredo Camacho
(Reyna Olaguez, youth media coordinator for South Kern Sol, contributed to this story.)

With so much at stake, it would seem that immigrant rights activists would be looking for any opportunity to build a larger base of constituents to pressure McCarthy. But they have not joined forces with LGBTQ rights organizers to push for immigration reform.

That strategy may work in liberal-leaning cities like New York and San Francisco. But can an LGBTQ-immigrant alliance work in a conservative setting like Bakersfield?

Advocates here aren’t so sure.

They credit the separation between the immigrant and LGBTQ communities to the conservative and religious tone of Kern County.

“Dolores Huerta has come out in support of the LGBT community, but I have not seen the general immigrant community come out in support,” says Daniel Landeros, a 32-year-old community activist with Organized for Action, a local organization fighting for immigration reform. Landeros, who has been openly gay since he was 14 years old, believes that his friends and family have been supportive of him because of their progressive attitudes, attitudes that he believes are not shared by more recent immigrants. Landeros’ family immigrated to the U.S. years ago; he’s a third generation American.

However, just as there is no visible immigrant community support for the LGBTQ community, Landeros also believes that the LGBTQ community has yet to fully support the immigrant community.

Daniela Miramontes, a 19-year-old lesbian student at Bakersfield College who has been granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), disagrees. Miramontes believes that the local LGBTQ community has been supportive of her undocumented status. “I have been able to meet the greatest supporters in the LGBTQ community and I can easily say that they were the most open people to accept who I am in my entirety,” she says.

“In both communities, I find a second family,” Miramontes says, “and in both communities I find friends, allies, and opposition.”

During her high school years, she says, some of her peers would make rude remarks regarding her sexual orientation. “The worst it has gotten is one time someone put gum in my hair as they uttered a really derogatory word during a history class.” But the discrimination went both ways. “My girlfriend at the time actually broke up with me because she thought I only wanted her ‘papers,’ even though gay marriage wasn’t event legal yet!”

According to Miramontes, some immigrant community members use their religious views to justify their inability to accept the LGBTQ community. “I know that no matter what, I need to love my undocumented family, support them, and keep fighting for them,” she says. “However, it hurts to know that some of them still are not 100 percent supportive of the LGBTQ community.”

Local community activist and CSU Bakersfield student Daniel, who declined to give his last name, has been working on immigration related issues in Kern County and statewide. “I am aware that there are many LGBTQ undocumented individuals out there but I think immigration reform and gay rights are two issues that shouldn't be combined right now because we are definitely going to lose many supporters, including conservative politicians who may be considering supporting immigration reform,” Daniel says. “I think those are two separate issues.”

But the separation between immigrant and LGBTQ communities may have weakened the political power and overall effectiveness of both communities in Kern County, says Landeros. Most organizations that are immigration or LGBTQ related only focus on one issue, he says, instead of becoming informed about what other issues affect their respective communities. In terms of immigration reform, Landeros strongly believes that, “There’s power in numbers; groups need to come together and unite in the fight for immigration reform.”

Meanwhile, Miramontes and other local activists have been working to convince Representative McCarthy to come out in support of comprehensive immigration reform. This summer Miramontes took part in a demonstration at McCarthy’s office organized by The Bridge Project. At the demonstration, Miramontes directed her comments to McCarthy himself in front of news cameras, asking the representative to extend to her the same opportunities that have been provided to his own son, whom Miramontes went to high school with.

Landeros says visibility like this is key. He says prominent figures in Kern County need to start publicly voicing their support of immigration reform. “They need to be visible supporters if they wish to make a real, lasting change.”

But given Kern County’s conservative political climate, it isn’t hard to imagine how difficult it may be for some individuals to voice support for immigration reform and LGBTQ rights, let alone to come out as a member of one or both communities.

“If I was undocumented -- straight or LGBT -- I wouldn't say it very loudly in Kern County,” says Whitney Wedell, chair of the non-profit organization Bakersfield LGBTQ.

Daisy Meza, youth reporter for South Kern Sol contributed to this story.

This article was produced as part of New America Media's LGBT immigration reporting fellowship sponsored by the Four Freedoms Fund.