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Immigration Bill Protests Crop Up Across U.S.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in Los Angeles a rally to mark the birthday of labor leader Cesar Chavez turned into the latest protest against proposed federal legislation meant to curb illegal immigration.

Rob Schmitz, of member station KQED, was there.

(Soundbite of crowd)

ROB SCHMITZ reporting:

Chanting si se puede, or yes, we can, several thousand farm workers marched through downtown Los Angeles demanding Congress legalize undocumented immigrants.

The United Farm Workers Union bussed in over 2,000 of the protesters from as far away as Oregon. Guillermo Lisaya(ph) was among them. Lisaya and his family pick grapes for a living in California's central valley. Though he admits he doesn't normally follow the news, he knew the exact number of the bill passed by the House that could change his family's future.

Mr. GUILLERMO LISAYA (Immigrant): (Through translator) We don't want the HR 4437 to pass, because it would effect all of us. If I'm giving a ride to a couple of people who are undocumented, this bill would make it so the police could fine me and throw me in jail.

Mr. SCHMITZ: Nor did thousands of others in cities throughout the country over the past week, whose protests focused on the House bill that would make felons of illegal immigrants, toughen penalties on those who employ or assist them, and build a fence along parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mr. ARTURO RODRIGUEZ (President, United Farm Workers Union): Millions are going to be joining the broadcast over the coming days.

Mr. SCHMITZ: Arturo Rodriguez is head of the United Farm Workers Union.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: We're going to see a movement across America. A million workers fighting for immigration reforms.

Mr. SCHMITZ: Rodriguez is the son-in-law of Cesar Chavez. He told those at yesterday's rally that the protests in the past week are due in large part to Chavez's populous crusade.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: He would be urging us to do everything we can to be leading this fight, to ensure that immigrant farm workers that are probably 70% to 80% of the farm workers we have in our country, that they get decent wages, they get decent benefits and the opportunities that every other American wants for their children.

Mr. IRA MELMAN (Spokesman, Federation for American Immigration Reform): I believe that if Cesar Chavez were alive today and saw the condition that farm workers in this country were working under, he would be appalled.

Mr. SCHMITZ: Ira Melman is a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR. Melman says Chavez's crusade has failed because of illegal immigration.

Mr. MELMAN: The agricultural industry in this country has known that they can get away with hiring illegal aliens at substandard wages, and do it with impunity.

(Soundbite of crowd singing)

Mr. SCHMITZ: Back in downtown L.A. union members attended a memorial mass for Cesar Chavez at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Standing outside was Jorge Rivera, who came here to remember his father, who died a few months ago. He was a grape picker.

Mr. JORGE RIVERA (Immigrant): Nobody will do that kind of work, so you know, why are they going to make it impossible for them to live in peace and always attack workers rights?

Mr. SCHMITZ: For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.