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Immigration rally in Homestead small but sincere

There is a certain poignancy to holding an immigration rally in a place called Homestead. The city's name dates back to 1898, when the government opened the area south of Miami to pioneering farmers. At that time, proof of living and working on a tract of public property qualified newcomers to call it their own. Today things are a little more complicated.

On the evening of April 10, a crowd of more than 2000 people, thick with U.S. and Mexican flags, gathered in the shade of a pavilion at Harris Field to protest the criminalization of illegal immigrants. Many of those present have lived in the area for a decade or more; some even arrived as children. Others were American-born citizens out to support family members or friends. In the national scheme of what organizers designated a National Day of Action, the rally was small. Indeed many attending were critical of Miami's apparent apathy in the face of an issue that has galvanized hundreds of thousands of protesters nationally. But for Homestead, whose agricultural workers experience problems different from their illegal counterparts in urban Miami, it was important to voice dissent.

As the crowd gathered, ranchera music played through speakers. Banners hung over a small stage quoted the Bible ("When did we see you a stranger and invite you in?" — Matthew 25:38) and the Statue of Liberty ("Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free "). Construction-paper portrayals of tomato-filled baskets emblazoned with "No to H.R. 4437," the house bill that would criminalize illegal aliens, adorned the pavilion's supports. Three nuns in black-and-white habits happily greeted gathering protesters.

Andrés Rojas, an early arrival, surveyed the crowd. Wearing a T-shirt depicting the Chilean flag, a baseball cap bearing the word Chile, an American flag draped over his shoulders like a cape, and sunglasses, the twenty-year-old resembled a Pan-American superhero. Though he is not a citizen, Rojas has a Social Security number and work permit. He has been in the U.S. for five years and lives in southwest Miami, not Homestead. But he wanted to show support.

"Miami needs to wake up," Rojas explained. "Ultimately the Cubans and Puerto Ricans are not familiar with this issue. For that population it isn't a problem. Nobody wants to be an illegal. But for these people it's almost impossible to become legal."

He was joined in sentiment by legal residents. "I don't speak Spanish, but I think anyone that's not here should get down on their knees and thank God it wasn't their parents or grandparents that had to go through this," scowled Debbie Kirkpatrick, a sunburned blond woman from Homestead.

Mario Miranda, age 35, who makes bread for a Mexican bakery in Homestead, and Sebastian Salazar, age 33, who works in landscaping in Key Largo, wore a collage of Mexican and U.S. flags. Both are in the country illegally. Salazar has worked in the U.S. on and off since he was seventeen. He has been in South Florida for ten years.

"I worked my whole youth in this country," he said, reasoning why he came to the rally. "I've been doing the same job for seven years and I make the same wage, seven dollars an hour, that I did when I started."

His friend Miranda concurred. "We would like justice. Sometimes people get paid with checks that bounce, or they don't get paid at all. We are here because this is the country of justice."

Miranda thinks the rallies in Miami could have been larger: "They haven't been well organized because we have a lot of people who don't have transportation and can't get drivers' licenses. The jobs are all far away."

Others agree with him. "I think they have been sleeping here," opined Olga Mazariegos, a quiet nineteen-year-old from Guatemala with perfect posture and hair that hangs below her waist. She crossed the Mexican border with her parents at age four; her younger brother was only four months old. She speaks English like a native, but dropped out of Homestead Senior High School.

"Without papers we were treated like nothing," she said softly. "I thought of myself as inferior, because I knew when I grew up I would not have the same rights — that I would not be recognized."

Now she works as a housekeeper. Her parents are laborers at a nursery.

"My hope is to overcome my self-esteem issues. I want to keep studying," she continued. "Someday I want to work as a legal person."

Two men in oxford shirts tucked into chinos, hair neatly parted, and skin the pallor of beige office furniture, carried a banner behind Mazariegos, yelling "El Partido Demócrata!" in thick Anglo accents. Members of the audience watched them impassively. Many can't vote.

Although Miami's Cuban community has received criticism from other groups about its lack of motivation regarding the immigration issue, the perceived apathy is not for lack of trying on the part of some organizers. Raul Saul Sanchez, head of the exile Democracy Movement and erstwhile hunger striker, said he was trying his best to build bridges with other movements over the issue. "We certainly would like to see more support," he conceded. "It's one thing to morally support and another to try and get active support. The first problem is the fragmentation of our community. The second is getting people who have solved the immigration problem to come out and advocate."

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