BERKELEY, CA (2/18/12) -- Two hundred immigrant workers, their wives, husbands, children, and hundreds of supporters marched through downtown Berkeley February 17, protesting their firing from Pacific Steel Castings. The company is one of the city's biggest employers, and the largest steel foundry west of the Mississippi River. Starting at City Hall, they walked for an hour past stores and homes, as bystanders often applauded. Teachers and students at a Montessori school along the route even came out to the sidewalk to urge them on.
At a rally before the march started, fired worker Jesus Prado told the assembled crowd, "I worked for Pacific Steel for seven years. We've organized this March for Dignity because we want to stop the way they're stepping on us, and treating us like criminals. We came here to work, not to break any laws."
"Many of us are buying homes, or have lived in our homes for years," added another fired worker, Ana Castaño. "We have children in the schools. We pay taxes and contribute to our community. What is happening to us is not just, and hurts our families. All we did was work. That shouldn't be treated like it's a crime."
Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin agreed. "We're here today to send a message to the Obama administration that the I-9 raids have to stop," he told the crowd.
Two hundred fourteen workers were fired in December and January, as a result of a so-called silent raid, in which the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arm of the Department of Homeland Security inspected the company's records to find workers who don't have legal immigration status. ICE then demanded that the company fire them.
For the past year these workers have held meetings in union halls and churches, distributed food to families hungry because they can no longer work, and spoken to elected officials. The march was the culmination of months of debate in which they weighed the consequences of making their firings public, and therefore their immigration status as well. "We know Berkeley is a sanctuary city," one worker explained. "This is about the safest place we can think of to have this march. What happened to us was unjust, and we feel we have to protest, if not for ourselves, then for others who face the same injustice."
Throughout the march, chants and shouts condemned the administration. Activists in the crowd pointed out that President Obama is attacking the communities of immigrants and people of color who were his strongest supporters in his 2008 presidential election campaign. At the time, Obama promised he would adopt a more humane approach toward immigration enforcement than his predecessor, who became notorious for factory raids and mass deportations. Candidate Obama said he'd work to reform immigration law so that immigrants could enjoy greater rights. Once in office, however, the administration not only continued President Bush's policy of enforcing immigration law in the workplace, but it vastly expanded I-9 audits and firings.
Councilman Arreguin, one of the first elected officials to support the workers last year, added, "The company and the workers pay taxes that support local schools and services. We could lose money we desperately need in these challenging economic times. The workers' paychecks inject hundreds of thousands of dollars into our local economy every month that support other businesses and families. All this is placed in jeopardy by the audit. It is not necessary to enforce immigration law in a way that is so destructive to workers, their families, their employer, and our entire community."
The union also criticized "the broken and unfair laws used by the government to disrupt and destroy the lives of many of our friends and colleagues."
The rallies that began and ended the march made the human cost of the firings plain.
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