Ken McLaughlin | SJ Mercury News
About 1,000 noisy but peaceful protesters greeted U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano when she returned to her alma mater Thursday night to speak on global security.
The protesters' message: Tell your boss, President Barack Obama, to keep his promise to work for the passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill by Congress.
As Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona and the valedictorian of Santa Clara University's Class of 1979, spoke to a crowd of about 500 inside the Mayer Theatre, the protesters carried signs urging the Obama administration to stop trying to deport undocumented immigrants to their home countries.
The protesters, who marched to the campus from Santa Clara's Lafayette Park, want to see legislation that will give the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a path to legalization.
Carrying signs that said, "Justice for Immigrants," and "Keep Our Families Together," the protesters were not allowed near the campus theater, where Napolitano spoke. Instead, they gathered several hundred yards from the building, at Homestead Road and Lafayette Street, many carrying candles.
The 9-month-old Democratic administration has decreased the number of workplace raids that were common during the Bush administration. But the Obama administration has supported a rapidly developing system called E-Verify, which employers can use to instantaneously determine if a potential employee is legally residing in the U.S.
The net effect, say the protesters, is the same: Workers lose their jobs, families are fractured, people get deported and are forced to live against their will in other countries.
In late September, a crackdown at an American Apparel factory in Los Angeles led to the firings of 1,800 employees. Immigration authorities said the workers were using false identity documents.
Authorities, however, say they are simply trying to enforce the laws as humanely as possible by eliminating the "job magnet" that draws so many illegal immigrants to the U.S. They also say they are stopping the employment exploitation of undocumented workers.
"Look, we are and will continue to be a nation of laws," Napolitano said. "And laws need to be enforced. But we are also a nation of immigrants."
In New Orleans on Thursday, Obama promised to push for a comprehensive immigration bill in 2010 and put Napolitano in charge of coming up with a plan.
Agreeing with protesters outside, Napolitano said a lot of America's immigration laws are unwieldy and in many ways unfair.
"We're a nation that prides ourselves on our fairness," she said.
But as they carried signs such as "Family Unity Cannot Wait," protesters, who came to Santa Clara from several Western states, decried the enforcement policies of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of Homeland Security.
Richard Hobbs, interim executive director of San Jose's Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network, noted that the last time Congress dealt with immigration on a comprehensive level was 23 years ago. "It is inhuman and against American core values to ask people to wait who have not been able to legally work, drive, travel, vote or access a safety net during that time," Hobbs said.
He said more than 380,000 immigrants were detained in fiscal year 2008-09 in jails and by local police officers deputized to perform federal immigration work, and more than 440,000 people will be held in detention by the end of the year. "The majority of these people do not have a criminal record, and yet the Napolitano policies continue to separate families," he said.
The frustration from the protesters stems from stalled congressional efforts over what to do with the nation's millions of undocumented immigrants, many of whom have lived in the U.S. for decades and have children who are citizens. Some advocates of a congressional immigration overhaul fear that Obama now lacks the political will to get a bill passed anytime soon.
One reason is that the administration is mired in a debate over how to overhaul the nation's health care system. And with the issue of illegal immigrants caught up in the debate over health care, some advocates of immigration changes say they fear that Obama's commitment to repairing the broken immigration system has faded.
Thursday's protests began with a news conference at Somos Mayfair, a community organization in East San Jose, attended by about 200 people. Some of the speakers were local residents who told poignant stories of how their families were broken up because of immigration raids.
Yvette Jimenez, a 17-year-old San Mateo County girl who has five siblings, saw her father deported to Mexico in December 2008. And immigration authorities are now trying to deport their mother.
Since the father was the family's breadwinner, she said, the family has been forced to live in motels and a homeless shelter.
"I'm a U.S. citizen and a senior in high school and want to go to college," she said. "I don't know why my parents are being forced out of a country they taught us to love."