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Immigration debate heats up at Central Valley forum
immigration forum pic1
Over 30 speakers presented their stories immigration to a crowd of 1,500 on Tuesday evening at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Modesto. Children, families, and students were brought to the microphone to give their testimony to Congressmen Jeff Denham and Trey Gowdy about their personal histories. - photo by BROOKE BORBA / The Journal

Stories of  hardship shared through tears were heard alongside shouts to enforce current immigration laws at Tuesday's listening session hosted by the Congregations Building Communities association and attended by U.S. Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) and Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina).

Over 1,500 people filled St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Modesto Tuesday evening to voice their opinions about immigration reform in the first of two Valley forums put on by the CBC in association with the PICO National Network. Together, the group effort formed “Campaign for Citizenship,” in order to push viable solutions on issues surrounding 11 million undocumented and aspiring Americans.

Representative Denham was joined by special guest Rep. Gowdy, who is the Congressional Immigration Subcommittee Chair. Gowdy will have a hand in writing new legislative immigration action. Denham invited Gowdy to California in the hopes that he would get to experience different viewpoints in a large Hispanic population.

“I know this is just the beginning. This is the first of many discussions. There is no easy solution. We’ve been working on this for several years,” said Denham. “It is time to fix this, and fix it once and for all for our generation. We have one opportunity to get it right.”

“I am thankful to be here with you,” said Gowdy at the start of the event. “I like and respect your Congressman, and so I am here. I want to listen to people’s perspectives.”

Little did he know that the perspectives would be more than voiced, but demonstrated passionately by a divided public. Tensions ran high throughout the entire event, and often times crowd members could not withhold their own opinions.

Denham began his speech in Spanish, much to the disapproval of many opposing reform of the immigration policies. Protesters lined up outside the church with American flags raised, signs up, and police lining the parking lot before the event began.

Likewise, members affirming the campaign set up tables outside the doors of the church with colorful paper butterflies lining banners stretching across the walls. The “Campaign for Citizenship” attributed the butterflies as a symbol of growth and transformation. It was their hope that many immigrants will be able to flourish under their newfound dream to be an American citizen.

Those of both viewpoints were allowed a three minute window of opportunity to speak, in English and Spanish. Immigrant Vietnam veterans drafted into war, college students, and community leaders in agriculture shared their insights into immigration laws.

Many who only spoke in Spanish, unable to relay their feelings in English, were continually shouted at during their speeches with phrases such as, “You’re in America!” or “No Hablo Espanol!” A small group even began chanting “Enforce the Law!” during a pastor’s speech.

“It is important to hear specific stories from our community members,” said Denham during confrontations. “Whether you agree with comments or not, I ask you not to clap, boo, or hiss. The challenges we face here are different than the challenges of South Carolina. We want to hear solutions to fix the problems. We want to carry your voice to Washington, D.C.”

“Congressman Denham is right,” added Gowdy. “We need to make sure this is the last time we visit this area. We did it in 1986, and that was my party that did it. And here we sit within my lifetime, and it wasn’t a solution. I want a solution that we all have confidence in. If we could get that, we’ll have something that binds us together.”

A representative of the PICO Campaign for Citizenship Platform listed five essential elements for any immigration reform bill, including a seven year path to citizenship with no permanent underclass.

Raymond Herrera, president and founder of We The People California’s Crusader, said he deeply opposes immigration. Herrera has formed a coalition with other pro-law enforcement organizations in the Central Valley, and calls for immigration laws to be enforced.

“I think that today, the American people are witnessing the end of democracy. It is political anarchy and a desecration of America. The law is made to keep them in their place,” said Herrera. “We shall not alter the course. We demand our laws to be upheld. It is the reason we have the government, to protect our properties. American dreams are for the American people.”

Turlock native, and one of the founding pastors of the CBC, Pastor Bridegroom was excited for the meeting, and felt positive that hearing testimonies would win over reform policies.

“The entire immigration policy needs revamping,” Bridegroom said. “In my opinion, it needs to go to a reasonable pathway.”

 “Campaign for Citizenship” volunteer and testimonial representative Gloria Sanchez said she believes that rights should be more than attainable for those looking for permanent citizenship.

“This issue affects a lot of families personally. For me, to be here today is important. My father was here for 15 years and died the same day he was going to get his fingerprints. He has been in America since 1987 and died in 2005,” said Sanchez.

“It’s hard when you see parents go through sickness and have no chance of getting insurance. Us kids, we are here because we didn’t have a choice. We try to be the best, like any other citizen. We pay our taxes and help out in school. So why do we not count as citizens?”

Another listening session is scheduled to be held from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at The Place of Refuge, 486 Button Ave., Manteca.