Hundreds protest in Burlington to support immigrant rights

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(Host) Several hundred people in Burlington joined a national protest Monday as they marched in support of immigrant rights.

The demonstrators called for better wages for legal immigrants and an amnesty program for undocumented workers.

Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss told the crowd that he’s exploring whether the city could become a “sanctuary city” that gives some protection to illegal immigrants.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Voices protesting)

(Dillon) The May Day March started in the old North End, a neighborhood that’s home to a large immigrant population.

But the crowd of about 300 protesters was mostly white and college-aged. Hugo Martinez Cazon has lived in Burlington for about 15 years. He says
some immigrants, especially those who are here illegally, are reluctant to take part in public demonstrations.

(Cazon) “Part of democracy and part of freedom is to not operate out of fear, but I know there are some people that have really not wanted to participate in the demonstration because they feel they stand out too much in Vermont and they stand to be singled out.”

(Dillon) Cazon is a member of a Vermont advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The panel recently heard testimony that the state’s dairy farms employ about 2,000 Mexican workers. Most are here illegally.

Cazon says the Vermont economy, like the rest of the country, relies on undocumented workers.

(Cazon) “If you think about it, it’s also the landscape that we look at everyday as Vermont landscape is owed to a lot of labor that’s coming more and more from immigrant workers.”

(Voices) “What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”

(Dillon) The protesters voiced their opposition to an immigration bill passed by the U.S. House that would make it a felony to be in the country illegally.

Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss says he’s investigating whether Burlington could declare itself a “sanctuary city” where immigrants would be given some form of protection.

(Kiss) “The cities choose not cooperate with the INS in terms of turning people in around immigration status. Different cities have treated it differently but that sort of one of the themes of having a sanctuary city. It gives immigrants some safety to live lives, have jobs.”

(Dillon) Rob Skiff from South Burlington pushed a baby stroller that carried a sign that declared No Human Being is Illegal.

(Skiff) “My kids are grandchildren of a person who immigrated to this country. And whether they are illegal or legal they are human beings. And we have to figure out a way to deal with treating people with a lot more respect in this country.”

(Dillon) The demonstration wound its way through downtown, past shoppers on Church Street and couples sipping drinks at outdoor cafes.

Greg Burbo is a Milton resident who watched the crowd march up Main Street. He doesn’t agree with the call for amnesty for illegal immigrants.

(Burbo) “My grandparents were legal immigrants and I think that’s all the difference in the world. They came through the proper channels, through Ellis Island. In fact, actually I’m Hispanic on my grandfather’s side, and I still think they should come to this country legally and just do it the way it’s supposed to be done.”

(Dillon) The march ended at the University of Vermont, which the protesters say pays unacceptably low wages to immigrant maintenance and custodial staff.

A university spokesman says the school has 3,000 full-time employees, and that only 180 of them make less than the $12 an hour being cited as a livable wage.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.

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