Immigrant Voices Heard at Obama's Second Town Hall Meeting

Fearing immigration reform was not on his agenda, dozens of immigrant rights activists Thursday participated in a rally outside the public school, as President Barack Obama held the second of two town hall meetings during his two-day trip to Southern California.


While those who were lucky enough to secure tickets to the event waited patiently in line to enter the gymnasium at Miguel Contreras Learning Center, about 200 people, mostly Hispanics, lined up on Third Avenue at Lucas Street, chanting and waving signs and banners that read "Obama Count Us Too!" "Legalization, Now," and "We Are Not Criminals."

The protesters at the rally, organized by Union Del Barrio and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), were demanding that the president issue an executive order to end Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and focus his efforts on formulating a plan to legalize the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country.

Kevin Prada, 12, who was born in the United States, spoke at the rally about his loneliness and the hardship he has had to endure since his father's deportation in 2007. Vicky Marquez talked about the emotional anguish she has been suffering for the last 13 years because she has not been able to see her children, living in her native El Salvador.

With Obama's focus being on pulling the country out of the recession, ending the Iraq war and reforming health care, many immigrant rights activists worry that the new administration would be less likely to come up with a proposal any time soon to overhaul immigration policies, unless they put pressure on him.

"It isn't a protest," asserted Nativo Lopez, state and national president of the Mexican-American Political Association. "It's a welcoming, and to remind him we're still here."

As the immigrants rights activists had predicted, during the more than an hour-long town hall event, Obama didn't make any reference to the thorny issue of immigration.

After Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced him, Obama walked over to the crowd of more than 1,000, only to be greeted like a rock star at a mega concert.

Just as he did the day before at a town hall in Orange County, the president talked about his economic stimulus packages and his administration's effort to reform education and health care.

He talked about his Recovery Act, the economic crisis, the peril created by a cyclical "burst and bust" economy and his proposed budget. And he didn't forget to touch upon his message of hope that won him the presidency.

"I know how tough times are in Los Angeles, in California, but also all across the country," Obama said. "Here is what I want you to remember though. We are going to meet these challenges. I promise you this. There will be brighter days ahead."

As if to hammer home that point, the president announced tax credits for new homebuyers that will kick in this year. He also said California will receive $145 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to assist homeowners to refinance their loans and provide mortgage assistance to low- and middle-income families.

The mood of the few who were inside the auditorium was clearly different from the rally participants outside. One woman in the audience, clearly overwhelmed by the occasion, asked the president how to make life healthier. An old man sitting in a wheelchair asked him what was the administration's policy on disabled people.

A woman, who identified herself as a "mixed-race individual," asked how California's household incomes don't go as far as incomes do in other states. Could Obama do anything to change this? Three more people had their chance to lobby questions at him before 8-year-old Ethan Lopez was handed the mike. How, he asked the president, could he keep teachers from getting laid off?

The fact that Obama skirted the issue of immigration reform at the meeting didn't seem to bother the city's elected officials, who have been publicly supporting it. Asked whether Obama should have brought up the immigration issue, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said talking about the issues wasn't the purpose of Obama's trip.

"Look, the purpose of the president's journey across the country was really to make a case for the stimulus package and the recovery efforts," defended Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa after the event. "I think he accomplished that."

"The president has made a commitment to start that conversation on immigration reform this year, and he's going to," said Eric Garcetti, president of the Los Angeles City Council, who said he had just returned from Washington, D.C. after meeting with the president's top advisors on immigration.

But immigrant rights activist were unconvinced. "I'm really disappointed," said Angelica Salas, executive director of CHIRLA.

Salas noted that Obama not mentioning immigration reform in a city where 46 percent of the population are immigrants indicated that immigration activists need to not let up on the pressure.

They are planning a series of marches in the next several weeks that will end May 1.

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