Standing Up To Be Counted

Susan Ferriss, Sacramento Bee, March 18, 2007

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Mexican immigrants like González have long served as the silent backbone of the farm industry that dominates Williams and the rest of Colusa County, about an hour’s drive north of Sacramento. While other parts of California with large immigrant populations have seen first- and second-generation Latinos emerge as political movers and shakers, such change has been slow in these remote parts.

But Latinos here are starting to become more outspoken about their desire to advance to pillars of the community — with a greater say over the quality of public services, the allocation of taxpayer dollars and the wooing of better-paying jobs.

Colusa County’s population of barely more than 21,000 has become, over the years, almost half Latino and more than 27 percent foreign-born. As of a few years ago, half of Williams’ approximately 3,700 residents were noncitizens.

Countywide, according to the 2000 U.S. census, at least 76 percent of Colusa’s immigrants were not naturalized citizens.

Because few Latinos vote, many immigrants believe, the county lacks a Latino supervisor, and the city of Colusa has no Latino City Council members. Williams has had only one.

A national backlash against Mexican immigrants and undocumented workers has left residents here indignant, though, and that is starting to change the composition of the electorate. So, too, is aggressive community organizing to help eligible immigrants become citizens, in the process transforming them into activists for better water, safer streets, more activities for children.

Colusa County has plenty of undocumented immigrants who don’t qualify for citizenship. But it is also home to a sizable reservoir of legal residents who received green cards through family ties or a federal amnesty Congress enacted in 1986.

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The point man negotiating with Colusa Heritage has been Alex Morales, who grew up in Colusa and is now a full-time community organizer.

Morales’ family received amnesty in 1986, and now he’s a U.S. citizen and a college graduate.

It can take some time, Morales said, before immigrants are convinced that they can take an activist role in their adopted communities.

“They don’t trust government because of their experience in Mexico,” he said.

Alberto Velásquez, the North Valley Sponsoring Committee’s executive director in Sacramento, is concerned that, now, the U.S. government is about to make turning immigrants into civic activists tougher.

The government plans to hike the basic citizenship fee for immigrants by 80 percent, increasing it to $595 per adult. The fingerprinting fee would rise as well, to $80.

“If people were willing to pay thousands of dollars to a coyote to get them over the border, they’ll pay that to become citizens,” said Velásquez. But he predicted that the vast fee increase will slow the civic evolution that’s in its early stages in Colusa. Certainly, it may become a barrier to the quicker assimilation that many Americans want to see in immigrant communities.

“We want bridges,” Velásquez said. “We want to lose that gap between Latinos and Anglos. Citizenship has been that vehicle.”

Colusa cannery worker José Sánchez said that many non-Latinos in Colusa have long regarded any Latino here “as a Mexican, forever. Even the children born here are viewed that way.”

“But after all,” Sánchez said, “we pay taxes, too.”

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“In two or three years,” she said, after more immigrants become citizens, “you wait and see. It’s going to be different here.”

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