Hermiston is making a name for itself as a supporter of immigration reform.
Amanda Aguilar Shank, senior organizer for the Rural Organizing Project, said she had heard about Hermiston City Council’s effort to support immigration reform and was eager to bring her group of activists to town to join Wednesday’s march.
“The reason we’re so excited about coming to Hermiston is because of the leadership shown by the Hermiston City Council,” she said Thursday.
A letter signed by city councilors and Mayor Dave Drotzmann recently in support of fair and sensible immigration reform caught her attention. The letter was handed personally to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., last month during a town hall meeting. It was also addressed to President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley.
“As far as I know, Hermiston is on the leading edge of this (in Oregon),” Aguilar Shank said.
Eddie De La Cruz, of Hermiston, said up to 200 people gathered at City Hall Wednesday to rally for a national issue that hit close to home for many.
The weather may have been dark and cloudy at the 5:30 p.m. March for ONE rally, but for many who attended, the future of immigration reform has never looked brighter. Many at the rally raised awareness about keeping families together, spotlighting the inability for undocumented people to obtain a driver’s license and to urge Congressman Greg Walden to support immigration reform.
Stanfield resident Susy Vargas stood where there was room below council chambers while De La Cruz, chairman of the Hermiston Hispanic Advisory Committee, and others rallied the group. Vargas held a red flag printed with a black bird, which symbolizes the United Farm Worker’s in Hermiston.
Vargas saw the march as an opportunity to promote keeping families together. She worries about deportation of undocumented individuals, which she said could separate families.
“This is the time, now is the time,” Vargas said. “We know we can do it.”
De La Cruz, who also marched with the group, said members of the Rural Organizing Project later praised the turnout.
“They were telling us this was the biggest crowd that they’d ever seen (at a march) across the state,” he said. “We’re on the map now.”
The tri-state tour began Monday in Bend with about 50 people from counties throughout the state loading into a bus for the five-day tour. Alberto Dorantes, 20, of Bend, was among those who emerged from the bus to cold and rainy weather in Hermiston.
Clad in ponchos outside Hermiston City Hall, Dorantes and his 17-year-old brother Fernando, also of Bend, “made noise for immigration reform” on drums made from empty water containers and a cow bell.
The brothers, who said they were undocumented, kept the beat going during the march from City Hall to El Gran Chapparal, an event hall on Southwest 11th Street.
“For me it’s not just being able to work legally, not being able to go to a four-year university,” Alberto said, of being undocumented. “But now times are changing.” Alberto said he wants to pursue a career in music and psychology.
Fernando, a student at Summit High School in Bend, said being undocumented has kept him from being able to obtain a driver’s license. He said it is hard to see others with driver’s licenses when he cannot apply for his.
“Some things you miss out because you don’t have the Social Security (Number),” Fernando said.
The brothers said the feeling on the bus was one of brotherhood, solidarity and unity.
Born in Tijiuana, Mexico, Alberto said he was brought to the United States when he was 12 years old. He told a packed crowd at El Gran Chapparal, an event hall, that he learned English within six or seven months of moving to the U.S. but developed depression.
“It was very difficult to adapt to a new language and a new way of life,” he said. “I was afraid, I was terrified.
“I had no identity, as if I was a ghost,” he said. “Now times are changing, there is hope now.”
Marchers had varying reasons for participating. Hermiston resident Aaron Shields Colbray, expressed his support by carrying a sign addressed to Congressman Greg Walden. Other signs included “Citizenship — No one is second class,” “Justice for all” and one sign that said, “Walden, my family votes.”
“We’re looking to pressure the state offices to side with us in immigration reform,” Shields Colbray said.
Rain along the mile-long route from City Hall to the event hall didn’t deter many from walking. Those who chose not to walk drove to El Gran Chapparal and waited for the marchers to arrive. More than 300 filled the event hall at El Gran Chapparal where speakers voiced support for immigration reform and a live band performed.
Speakers such as Mitch Thompson, 21, who coaches youth in Hermiston, voiced support specifically for undocumented students and athletes in Hermiston.
“Like the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s, this movement pushes to humanize laws that otherwise are dehumanized,” Thompson said. “These laws don’t see people, they see numbers.”
Aguilar Shank also addressed the crowd at El Gran Chapparal.
“We have a bus full of immigrants, of allies, that have been uniting and becoming one team to make immigration reform happen,” Aguilar Shank said at El Gran Chapparal.
And when the tour ends in Walla Walla today, the energy behind it to promote immigration reform will not.
“Immigration reform is on the horizon,” said Alberto Dorantes. “Let’s keep going.”
On the homefront, De La Cruz said his next step is planning a bus trip to the Capitol in Salem in May to advocate for driver’s licenses.