In the looming uncertainty of the consequences of Trump’s presidency, the Watsonville community crowded into the City Plaza in a show of strength, unity and determination.
The Jan. 19 demonstration, titled “Hands Around the Plaza,” was mostly attended by city officials and their affiliates. The event served to highlight the city’s commitment to maintaining its sanctuary status.
Organized by the local Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in partnership with the Protect Pajaro Valley Coalition, a network of local nonprofits and city officials, the event provided resources for undocumented people and their families in the community.
“When the new administration was elected, many of our members and community members were calling the union asking what the union can do,” said SEIU 521 representative Olivia Martinez. “We thought we would collaborate with different agencies, city council members and school districts to think about how we can protect our rights [and] create a safe space for undocumented workers, the LGBT community, women and people of color.”
Much of the Watsonville community’s fear is related to potential changes in immigration policy, including an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA is an executive action implemented by former President Barack Obama which defers deportation for undocumented youth.
These policy shifts are of particular concern because they pose the risk of separating families with mixed documentation and citizenship status.
“[Trump] is talking about deportations. He is talking about repealing DACA and that creates a lot of fear,” said Watsonville City Council member and former Mayor Felipe Hernandez. “We don’t want our community to live in fear.”
Residents said they attended to show fearful people they are not alone and they can rely on the community to keep them safe. This is particularly important in a community like Watsonville, which is about 81 percent Latinx, according to a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report, many of whom are undocumented.
“I just want to show our community that we stand united,” said Watsonville resident Teresa Rodriguez. “That is why we are here. It is a show of support to our community and every member of it.”
Prominent members of the community spoke, in both English and Spanish, before the crowd of at least 100 people. Among them was Watsonville Police Department (WPD) Chief David Honda, who assured the crowd Watsonville officers are safe to interact with.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen, and we don’t know what kind of policies are going to come forth, but what we do know is that your police department is here for you,” Honda said. He said his department will not report an individual’s immigration status to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after something minor, such as a traffic stop.
Many appreciated the WPD’s involvement in protecting undocumented people. The Brown Berets were anxious to make sure the police follow through on their promises.
“We just have to hold them accountable because once someone is in jail it’s a different story, they can easily call ICE,” said Brown Beret member Emmanuel Ballesteros. “If it’s a person that is damaging the community and has multiple violent charges, I don’t want them near my community either. But if it’s just a regular farmworker or undocumented person that gets stopped […] that’s unfair.”
The event also focused on offering a sense of stability. Doug Keegan, director of Santa Cruz County Immigration Project, stressed the importance of spreading awareness of the law and knowing your rights.
“One of the most important things is to distribute accurate and reliable information so people don’t panic and so they know how they can get help,” Keegan said. “We plan to be vigilant and be a resource for the community as things develop.”
The event ended with attendees taking each other’s hands and forming a ring around the City Plaza. Several chants echoed through the plaza in both English and Spanish, such as “si se puede.”
“Hands around the Plaza” was an expression of Watsonville’s pride in both its community and its role in the state economy.
Felipe Hernandez emphasized that agricultural communities like Watsonville and its berry farms are the foundation upon which California’s economy is built.
“Watsonville, the people that live here, are the backbone of our economy,” Hernandez said. “People think that Hollywood or Silicon Valley are the backbone of the California economy, but [they’re] not. It’s agriculture. The backbone of agriculture is immigrant farm workers.”
Additional reporting by Sydney Griffith Gladu and Michael Kushner.