MODESTO — About 1,500 people turned out at a Modesto church Tuesday for a forum on immigration, most of them in support of eventual citizenship for people who entered the country illegally.
Speakers told two congressmen about the hardship of living and working in the United States while worrying that they might be deported.
"I am an undocumented student, raised in a low-income home by a single mother," said Estefani Hermosillo, a student at Modesto Junior College. " We're in need of immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship."
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, took part in the forum at St. Stanislaus Catholic Community church with Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.
They sat at a folding table in front of the altar as speakers, most of them from Mexico, talked about their experiences. Dozens of police officers and other security people stood watch in the sanctuary, which rang often with applause for citizenship advocates.
The event happened just as Congress is making a fresh effort at reforming immigration laws. It could involve a compromise among people seeking tighter borders, farmers in need of labor and advocates for the 11 million people without documentation already in the country.
"Jeff Denham, I ask you to support the 11 million new Americans," said Rosa Elena Salinas of Patterson.
A couple of people yelled complaints about speakers not using English. Those speakers included Denham, who married into a Latino family and made his initial statement to the crowd in Spanish.
Raymond Herrera of Claremont, in Southern California, said he did not agree with the citizenship push.
"They are illegal aliens," he said. "Their children are illegal aliens. They're not entitled to American citizenship."
Praying for 'wisdom and guidance'
The Rev. Ramon Bejarano, pastor of St. Stanislaus, noted the delicacy of the topic in an opening prayer to God: "You know how complicated this issue can be, and we need your wisdom and guidance."
The event was organized with the help of Congregations Building Community, a group based in Stanislaus County that aids immigrants.
"Some of us continue to be branded as criminal for being illegal, but the truth is, we just want to be here," said Carlos Falcon, an MJC student who is a leader in the group and a legal resident seeking citizenship.
A few speakers, representing agriculture, asked for improvement of the system that allows seasonal workers into the United States. Farmers are supposed to verify legal status, but many do not.
Denham said he hopes for reform that includes a "guest worker" program for farmers and "earned legal status" for people who qualify to stay in the United States.
"We've got an opportunity to fix a multigenerational problem," he said. "It's been about three decades of challenges that have gotten more and more complex."
Gowdy, in an interview after the forum, said he does not know how many people might become citizens. He said he met with Hermosillo, the MJC student, and was impressed by her accomplishments.
Hermosillo moved from Mexico in 2000, when she was 6, and works as a waitress while studying biology. She is thinking of becoming a pharmacist.
"I want to be a citizen of this country, which I consider my home," she told the crowd. "Thank you for listening to my story."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.
Another immigration forum will be from 8 to 9:30 a.m. today at the Place of Refuge, 486 Button Ave., Manteca. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, will take part along with Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.