Immigration Activist Mobilize Community in GOP District

PHOTO: Radio Bilingüe and KPFK teamed up to broadcast a town hall meeting in Rep. Gary Millers district.

A Spanish-language radio program turned the heat up on Congressman Gary Miller (R-Ca.) in a town hall meeting broadcast live from the congressman's home district on Monday.

The public radio news network Radio Bilingüe teamed up with progressive, L.A.-based public radio station KPFK-FM to host the town hall that focused on the congressman. Participants and panelists urged the congressman to depart from his anti-immigrant policies and support immigration reform.

"Ya Basta! Enough is enough. We want immigration reform and you better give it to us," said Danny Morales, executive director of Librería del Pueblo, an advocacy organization based in San Bernardino, California. "Our vote counts."

"Are you going to be part of the future or the past, like segregationists?" said Jose Calderon, professor emeritus at Pitzer College. "Please support legalization for 12 million undocumented immigrants."

The town hall was broadcast by the liberal Los Angeles radio station as part of a full day of Spanish-language programing focused on immigration reform. It marked the first time that regular English-language programming by the Pacifica Radio member station was fully suspended.

The broadcast marked the anniversary of a 2006 nationwide rally for immigration reform that was the largest mobilization of immigrants in the country. The protests were largely in response to a bill, cosponsored by Miller, that would have made undocumented immigrants felons, and hundreds of thousands took part in cities from Miami to Milwaukee. The largest rally took place in Los Angeles, where more than 500,000 people turned out.

The felony provision was eventually dropped from the bill. It was a victory for immigration activists, but ultimately it was a single battle in a larger fight for immigrant rights. That fight continues today in cities and towns across the nation, including places like California's 31st district, which Miller represents.

"We wanted to bring the debate to one district that reflects what's also happening in other areas," said Ruben Tapia, host and organizer of the town hall and "Enfoque Latino," a weekly show on KPFK that airs with other nightly Radio Bilingüe programing.

Minorities make up most of Miller's 31st district, located about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Nearly half of the district, which was created following the 2010 census, is Hispanic, and more than half of the voters are minorities who, polls show, are more likely support immigration reform.

Miller has become the focus of pro-immigration-reform activism as members of Congress draft a bill in Washington. Earlier this month, a national bus tour for immigration reform rallied at his district offices.

Miller has taken a hard line against immigrants during his 14 years in Congress. In addition to co-sponsoring the 2006 bill that sparked nationwide protests, he also sponsored a bill that would repeal automatic citizenship granted to children of undocumented immigrants in 2011.

Numbers USA, a foundation that seeks to reduce immigration to the United States, gave Miller an "A+" for his support of anti-immigrant policies in its report card of congressional leaders.

But in a prerecorded interview that aired during the town hall meeting, Miller appeared to be significantly softening his position.

"We can't have a system where people are left in limbo," Miller said, adding that he did not believe it would be possible to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.

"You can't listen to their stories and not look at them and put yourself in their situation. It's not something I'm taking lightly," he continued.

Miller could not be reached for comment, but his staff said he was in an "information-gathering stage." Miller is seeking input from his different constituencies and waiting for a bill to be put forward before taking a position on the current immigration reform effort.

Whatever Miller's reason, most Californians, including many in Miller's party, already support immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship, according to a recent poll conducted by USC Dornsife and the Los Angeles Times. The poll found that 76 percent of Republicans support allowing undocumented immigrants with no criminal record to "go to the back of the line" and earn their citizenship by learning English and paying back taxes and a penalty. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats and 83 percent of those with no party preference also said they were in favor.

The poll indicates a drastic change in public opinion. In Nov. 2010, only 41 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats supported allowing undocumented immigrants to stay permanently.

For Miller, and for others balancing different constituencies in changing districts, shifting political positions can be a tricky proposition.

"Whatever their beliefs on policy, congressmen have to worry about the short term. They're always running for reelection," said UC Riverside professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, director of the National Asian American Survey. "Even though his district is changing, it may not be changing fast enough for him to come out strongly for immigration reform. He might alienate other voters."

For many, of course, electoral politics are beside the point.

"It's not about parties, it's about families, it's common sense" said Amulfa de la Cruz, director of Mi Familia Vota, a non-partisan organization that promotes civic participation. "The community has spoken. Now we need [Congress] to make it happen."

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