How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Orange County activists join fast for immigration reform (photos)

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Southern California's immigration reform movement has been centered largely in Los Angeles, but this week a Brea shopping center has become a hub of protest. 

Pro-immigration reform advocates from Orange and Los Angeles counties are fasting outside an Ann Taylor Loft and camping overnight in tents. Organizers of the fast say Orange County has less of a political culture, and immigration reform could use the extra attention there.

"I think LA has been a more immigrant-heavy city for a longer time," said Dayne Lee of the LA-based Korean Resource Center, whose members are fasting, along with labor and church groups. "Orange County- these demographic changes are a little bit newer."

Orange County is estimated to have nearly 300,000 residents who entered the US illegally.  More than 1,000 of those residents are Koreans, Lee said - and those are just the ones who've had contact with his organization.

"They don’t talk about it at school," Lee said. "They don’t talk about it at church, and there’s no political forum there where they can express these thoughts. So that’s why we’re trying to force the conversation.”

Activists, who are taking part in a national fasting event,  are also trying to pressure Orange County Republican Congress members into taking stronger stands for immigration reform - in particular, Reps. John Campbell, R-Irvine and Ed Royce, R-Fullerton, whose Orange County office sits in the same Brea shopping center where activists have gathered to protest before. 

Royce, who is in DC, issued this statement Monday in responses to the fast.

"There is no question that we must fix our broken immigration system. That means implementing faster documentation processes and workable employer verification as well as effectively securing our border. Only then can we talk about a pathway to an earned legal status for adults. However, I also believe that we should not punish children who did not choose to be brought here for their parents' decision to illegally cross the border."

This falls short of the activists' demands of the congressman.  They are calling on him to sign a pledge card to advance immigration reform. 

But it's unclear how much of a difference winning the support of Royce or others would make. Late last week, speaker John Boehner said he had "no intention" of allowing the House to enter into negotiations with the Senate about immigration reform. 

But activists say they remain hopeful that there can be a bipartisan breakthrough in the House.  Congressmen David Valadao, R-Hanford and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock have broken ranks to support an immigration bill in the House introduced by Democrats.  Katie Brazer of the Coalition For Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles said the session could be extended.

"You know, where there's a will, there's a way," said Brazer, who does outreach for CHIRLA in Orange County. "And so we're just really pushing because there hasn't been that will."

Brazer was among the supporters visiting the people fasting. But activists were having little success winning over some passersby. Kyle Underwood, a police chaplain from Fullerton walked past the activists Monday afternoon, and said seeing people fasting did nothing to change his mind.

”If you’re here illegally, you’re here illegally," Underwood said. "There’s no gray area.”

Garrett Burchit, a 19-year-old from Anaheim Hills, agreed. He said immigrants here illegally are taking jobs from citizens.

"Starving yourself for something that is just making the country go more poor - there's just no sense in it," Burchit said.

Those fasting say they hope to talk with members of the public. Enrique Bravo crossed the border illegally nearly 20 years ago. His wife, and three children followed him several months later. 

He said he is now a busy electrician in Costa Mesa, and his children have embraced their American educations. 

"We work hard and we pay taxes so I think we have to be part of the country, too," Bravo said. 

Bravo is planning to fast as long as a couple of days. Others have committed to fasting five days.

On any given day over the next week, there will be at least 11 people fasting at the site. The number is supposed to represent the 11 million-plus people living in the US illegally.

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