SEDALIA — Dressed in white to symbolize their peaceful message, about 500 people — mostly Hispanic immigrants from Sedalia and Marshall — marched from the state fairgrounds to the Pettis County courthouse Monday to protest a bill in Congress that would build a wall between the United States and Mexico.
The march was the largest protest in mid-Missouri on Monday. None was planned in Columbia.
Rosy Contreras, 33, who lives in Sedalia and works at Tyson Foods, helped organize the event. Gary Michaelson, a Tyson Foods spokesman, said the Tyson Food plant in Sedalia wasn’t negatively affected by Hispanic workers taking the day off to march, but about a dozen red-meat plants in the upper Midwest closed because they expected employees not to come in to work. Contreras said she was surprised by the big turnout.
“I’m hoping Congress and the president will think about the law and not pass it,” she said. “Hopefully, (immigrants) will be able to get more permits to work in the United States and better themselves.”
Although the conversation was mostly in Spanish along the route of the march, protesters waved American flags at passers-by and carried signs with messages such as, “Say No to 4437” and “The U.S. is a Nation Full of Blessings: Share.”
The bill, sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., has passed the House and is in Senate committee.
Julieta Sotelo, 24, who has lived in Sedalia for three years after moving from Chihuahua, Mexico, echoed the sentiments on the signs.
“(Undocumented immigrants) are not criminals,” she said. “These people only want to have papers so they can work hard for their famililes.”
Salvador Armenta, a 45-year-old U.S. resident from Guanajuato, Mexico, has lived in the U.S. for 20 years. He said he drove from Firebaugh, Calif., near Fresno, to march with his sister who lives in Sedalia. With a Mexican flag knotted around his neck and an American bald eagle on his T-shirt, he said he marched to show the two countries can work together.
“We need each other,” he said. Immigrants need money for their families, like the one in Mexico he sends money to, he said, and the United States needs workers.
Richard Beard, 64, an immigration lawyer in Sedalia, also joined the march. He said he defends immigrants caught with false documentation often. The House bill was written from the wrong perspective about immigrants’ purpose here, he said.
“They don’t want U.S. citizenship; they want to work,” he said.
Since seeing firsthand the poverty of South America when he was a missionary during the 1960s, Beard said he has tried to persuade Missouri senators to make it easier for immigrants to obtain work visas for brief periods.
“(Immigrants) come from countries with no vegetation, no industry,” he said. “They have desperate need to provide for their families.”
Melissa Majana, an employee at the Children’s Therapy Center in Sedalia, has lived in the United States for 27 years since moving from Mexico City. She gained legal status in 1986 with the Immigration Reform and Control Act.
Building a wall would be unnecessary, she said, if the United States made it easier for Mexicans to come and work legally . Blocking them now will only remove the contributions they’ve made to U.S. society, she said.
“There are 11 million immigrants here that work, study and purchase products,” she said as she marched with her daughters, 11 and 3. “If we lose all that it will affect our economy.”
Majana said the march was history in the making, and that’s why she let her school-age daughter take the day off Monday to participate.
“They learn history by textbooks, and this is history live,” she said.
Of the 500 Hispanic marchers and non-Hispanic townspeople who joined the marchers at the courthouse, there was only one voice raised in dissent.
Pausing only to identify himself and to say that he was sick of Mexicans “taking people’s jobs,” Steve Galder drowned out organizers’ speeches on the courthouse steps, shouting: “Go back to Mexico; no one wants you here.”
The crowd responded by chanting, “We are home,” and “We’re not criminals.”
Alex Suarez, a 21-year-old car salesman in Marshall, participated in the demonstration with his parents, who are both Mexican immigrants. His parents are examples of immigrants who simply want to earn an honest living, he said.
“If you haven’t been to a Third World country,” he said, “you’ll never understand what these people are doing here.”