DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The fierce debate over immigration played out in earnest yesterday in Bakersfield, California. Immigrant and union activists converged on that city to ramp up pressure on the local Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy is the House majority whip who has said the immigration bill that recently passed the U.S. Senate will not budge in his chamber.
Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING)
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: At dawn yesterday, hundreds of activists loaded into busses in downtown Los Angeles. Rallying the crowd from the bed of a pickup truck was union leader Art Pulaski.
ART PULASKI: This is our trip and our road to justice for every worker.
PULASKI: (unintelligible) Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BUS ENGINE)
SIEGLER: Three hours later, the activists stepped out of the busses and into the blistering heat of Bakersfield. This place is about as red as it gets in California. Kern County voted 58 to 39 for Mitt Romney last year. Oil drilling is a big industry here. But this is also farm country.
HASSAN ZUNIGA: We come here to support them, so to let them know that they're not alone, because there is a movement building here.
SIEGLER: Hassan Zuniga of L.A. is talking about the thousands of immigrant farm workers in this area who he says deserves a shot at citizenship. Latinos comprise about half of the population in and around Bakersfield. And the state's surging Latino community has been lobbying House Republicans here over the congressional break. Yesterday, the spotlight was on Congressman Kevin McCarthy.
ZUNIGA: We're going to try to get him to our side for the pathway to citizenship and comprehensive immigration reform that is bipartisan.
SIEGLER: McCarthy's face was plastered on signs as activists caravanned slowly through downtown Bakersfield.
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SIEGLER: The caravan drew a few onlookers and some waves of support, but most people seemed to be going about their business.
DEAN HADDOCK: It feels more like a stunt that's put on by the UFW, and they've been doing that since the '70s.
SIEGLER: UFW, short for United Farm Workers. This is Dean Haddock. He's a school board trustee who recently became chair of the local Republican Party. He says immigration is a big issue here. A lot of farmers just can't find a reliable supply of workers, he says. But Haddock doesn't fault his congressman.
HADDOCK: The one thing that most Republicans - at least here in this area - see as the fix is securing the border. Then we can go ahead and do all the other things of taking care of the people that we care about.
SIEGLER: But here's why the immigration debate is so complex, even in conservative strongholds like Kern County.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
SIEGLER: After the caravan through downtown, hundreds of people convened over at Yokuts Park. The stage was flanked by paintings of Cesar Chavez. And joining the farm workers for a turn at the podium was Bakersfield's Mayor Harvey Hall, also a Republican.
MAYOR HARVEY HALL: I join today's event with hope and optimism. America is built on diversity, drive and the ingenuity of immigrants.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTORS CHANTING)
SIEGLER: Soon after the mayor spoke, the procession left on foot for Congressman McCarthy's local office. It turned out the majority whip is currently in the Middle East. But that didn't dampen the mood of Whelma Kabanawan, a Korean-American who drove up from LA.
WHELMA KABANAWAN: I feel like, you know, we're sending a strong message to Bakersfield and McCarthy that he needs to make a vote on citizenship.
SIEGLER: That's looking unlikely. McCarthy's office did issue a statement yesterday, saying the congressman welcomed the visitors and the dialogue, but that he'll continue to push a step-by-step approach when Congress reconvenes, not a complete immigration overhaul.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Bakersfield. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.