Farmworkers travel to D.C. to keep spotlight on immigration


Jason Bolden of Charlotte, N.C. lets one of his daughters, Nadia (7) sleep on his shoulder as his other daughter, Jaiya (9), rests in front of him during the inauguration of President Obama on Jan. 21. (Lucian Perkins/For The Washington Post)

Most of President Obama’s inaugural address was inaudible on the faulty Jumbotron at the Washington Monument, but toward the end one snippet came through clearly: “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.”

A little crowd of farmworkers from Florida went wild.

“Happy four more years!” they yelled, exchanging jubilant high-fives, forgetting for a moment about the chill that cut through their light sweaters and fleece jackets.

About two dozen farmworkers, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, had traveled to Washington in two caravans. One group drove all night Saturday; the other spent three weeks zigzagging across the South, meeting with legislators and making speeches calling for immigration reform.

For Hispanics, this inauguration was particularly meaningful. Seventy-one percent of Hispanic voters chose Obama, helping to turn several swing states in his favor. Now, the Florida farmworkers thought it was his turn to listen to them.

On Sunday, they joined a busload of farmworkers from Georgia in a march through Georgetown, from the Mount Zion United Methodist Church, a onetime stop on the Underground Railroad, to the Dumbarton United Methodist Church, where they spoke about their journey.

“We are here to remind the president and the Congress of the promise that was made to us to work to make a reality of comprehensive immigration reform,” said Tirso Moreno, general coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida, one of six groups in the caravan.

The Obama administration has in the past year introduced work permits for undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children, and the president is pushing to create a path to citizenship for most of the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Several in the group said they had been treated unfairly by employers or had seen family members deported.

“We have no overtime, no help for single mothers and no right to complain,” said Imelda Hernandez, 57, a native of Mexico who has spent the past 30 years picking tomatoes and doing other manual labor in Florida. “There are many single mothers who are afraid to take their kids to school because they don’t have driver’s licenses.”

On the trip through the South, the caravan participants heard testimony from immigrant Latinos they met along the way, including one whose father had waited for two decades to become a citizen, only to have his pending citizenship put on hold after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Devastated, the man killed himself.

“That really touched me,” said Carlos Lopez, 20, of Dade City, Fla., who was brought to the United States when he was 7 and worked each summer picking “peanuts, oranges, strawberries, blueberries, tobacco — anything.”

Many along the way supported the group with honks and waves, Lopez said, but “some people are just rude and flip you off.”

Not everyone in the caravan was Latino. Orlando resident Evens Vital, 34, an undocumented fieldworker from Haiti, said he hopes to get an education and improve his life.

“If I’m here, it’s a fact I’m here, but let me catch the train. Give me a chance to bring myself into the economy, give me a chance to build up the country,” Vital said.

David Benson, 53, a park maintenance worker from Dade City, was born in the United States but joined the caravan on behalf of his roommates, undocumented workers from Mexico who were too afraid to participate.

“They’ve gotten hurt, beaten up, and they beg me never to call the cops,” Benson said. “I felt obligated to come here . . . it just can’t keep going on the way it’s going on now.”

The crowd of hundreds of thousands at the inauguration was liberally sprinkled with Latinos from around the country. Luis Noé, 24, who works at the Organization of American States, said he was proud to have helped elect Obama and to know the Latino community is maturing and participating more in American politics.

“He has a vision to help the middle class, the poor, people of color,” said Noé, a son of former Honduran diplomats and a resident of Northern Virginia. “He is about opportunities for all, and that’s why he has become a beloved president.”

His friend Franklin Cuello, a U.S. Marine and native of Colombia, said Obama relates to mainstream Americans because of his upbringing.

“His story is similar to ours in that he had to work hard to get where he is today,” Cuello said. “He is the realization of the American Dream.”

With temperatures in the 40s, the shivering Floridians stopped to buy hats and hand warmers, and Lopez used a commemorative baseball cap to warm his face. Many were first-time visitors to the nation’s capital, and they posed for photos in front of statues of Abraham Lincoln and Simon Bolivar.

Even after seven hours in the cold, they were glowing, especially upon hearing Obama’s nod to immigrants.

“Just to hear him say that was worth the trip for me,” Benson said. “I feel like I’ve completed something.”

Vital, dressed in a thin coat, chanted: “Aqui estamos, no nos vamos” — we are here, we are not leaving — as the group marched along 18th Street NW. “Thank God I’m here,” Vital said of the inauguration.

Hernandez said she hadn’t understood the president’s words, but hearing his voice made her feel good. “It was a historic day for me,” Hernandez said. “I’ve been 30 years in this country and I’ve never participated in the election of the president.”

That will change soon, she said, noting that she plans to become a citizen in April: “Next time, I’m going to vote.”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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