Vidal Rojas stood on the sidewalk facing Capitol Hill Way South on May 1, Tivoli Fountain bubbling behind him in the midground, the dome of Olympia’s Capitol building looming beyond.
Rojas was dressed in a wine-colored jacket and a red-and-blue baseball cap that read USA. There were people all around him, either in similar colors or camouflage, many armed with weapons of war. Some touted signs protesting the closure of the state economy; others, conspiracy theories about microchips hidden in vaccines that do not yet exist to stop a virus that very much does.
A young girl in a pink RZR battery-powered car did slow donuts on the Capitol lawn.
Rojas wasn’t there to protest the closure. He and dozens more had come to the Capitol on May Day, an internationally recognized celebration of the value of workers and workers’ rights, to demand government support for undocumented workers, many of whom have recently been deemed “essential” for their critical role in America’s food supply chain.
“I want the government to know that we’re fed up,” Rojas said in Spanish. “They don’t understand that we’re essential workers, supposedly, but we don’t have any rights.
“There’s nothing for us,” Rojas said.
Dozens of workers and people who support them drove down from Seattle to Olympia in a long caravan to demand that Gov. Jay Inslee establish a $100 million fund to support undocumented workers in the state on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis.
It was a socially distant May Day protest. After driving in circles past the Capitol for the better part of an hour, the group gathered in a nearby church parking lot to hear speeches in Spanish, English and Indigenous languages.
The asks are modest compared to the need. Even $100 million wouldn’t go far enough. Estimates show that $25 million would be needed every month to support expenses for non-citizen taxpayers who file with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (itin), not to mention other undocumented people.
But it would help, said Carlos Marentes of El Comité, one of the organizations that planned the caravan.
“Right now, we’re in a situation of triage, right? We’re trying to help as many people possible,” Marentes said. “But there’s a limit to what triage can do.”
Undocumented people are the backbone of the agricultural workforce in this country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that as many as half of crop workers in the country are undocumented. Hundreds of thousands are in the country on H-2A visas, which allow them to stay for up to 10 months to pick crops and other agricultural jobs.
None of them received the $1,200 stimulus check from the federal government, nor can they access recently improved unemployment benefits, despite the fact that they pay into the system when they file with an itin.
That means people who are ensuring grocery store shelves are stocked with produce and meat, the very same people falling prey to the coronavirus in large numbers, lack access to basic social services like health care and unemployment benefits.
That’s not right, said Kathy Kravit-Smith, who came from Seattle to protest alongside other workers.
“It’s important to acknowledge essential workers,” Kravit-Smith said. “There is nothing more essential than farm workers.”
Farm workers need personal protective equipment, food support and rent support to get through these trying times.
“It should be the number one priority so we can all go home and have a salad tonight,” Kravit-Smith said.
Salad may have been on her mind, but it was the smell of sweet baked goods that filled the air at 11 a.m. on May 1 when cars began lining up on a side street next to the Franz Bakery in central Seattle.
In normal times, El Comité and the May 1 Action Coalition would be staging their march in nearby Judkins Park. Indigenous people traditionally led the way, singing and dancing in intersections. This year, a parade of cars lined up waiting for a police escort out of town. Many sported signs demanding support and respect for agricultural workers.
The caravan took off around 11:30 a.m. with little fanfare, leaving this reporter in the dust. A police officer said that Real Change was on its own — without the rest of the crew, normal traffic laws would have to be obeyed.
The caravan was slow, and by the time Real Change hit the highway, so had they. Each car flashed its hazard lights in an attempt to warn off other drivers, who packed the roadways once the group left Seattle proper.
The drive to Olympia went smoothly. A bright spring day illuminated Washington landscapes that melted into the distance as the caravan meandered past Tacoma and Lakewood, past shuttered casinos and cheap gas stations. One blue sedan pulled to the side, steam or smoke billowing from its front end.
Upon arriving in Olympia, May Day protesters drove down Capitol Hill Way South, rolling by unmasked, mostly white people bearing signs and assault rifles demanding that the government reopen. Drivers circled at the stoplight to create a loop while anti-government protesters cheered, not knowing for whom they were showing support. Anti-government, pro-Trump cars also did loops around the street, mixing in with the immigrant protesters.
The protest was meant to take place at Tivoli Fountain, a circular fountain comprised of smaller jets of water, like a sunflower. However, a block away was a clear parking lot outside the United Church of Christ, empty of other protesters and ideal to set up a sound system.
Speakers took to the stage to extoll the excesses of capitalism and the need to support essential workers. They continued on, speaking in Spanish, English and Indigenous languages as angry white people drove by, accusing them of supporting communism. One set had their Harley Davidson motorcycles parked in the lot and insulted people around them for making it difficult to leave.
“We will show them the respect they didn’t show us,” a woman said as the crowd made way.
Demands by undocumented workers for economic justice aren’t unique. Neither is a program meant to give it to them.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature approved a $125 million fund to provide benefits to undocumented workers in the state, which, like Washington, is a large agricultural producer. It’s not a huge amount: Each undocumented adult may receive $500 if they are undocumented, over the age of 18 and otherwise ineligible for relief from packages passed by the federal government.
Disaster relief in a wildfire-prone state like California is nothing new and local organizations have stepped up for undocumented people in the past, said Sasha Feldstein, Economic Justice Policy Manager with the California Immigrant Policy Center.
“I think that provided fuel for this conversation,” Feldstein said. “How do we get something at the state level so community organizations don’t have to fundraise, get systems in place and things like that?”
The money, $50 million of which was provided by private foundations, is not enough and plans need to be in place to put money into relief funds on a regular basis, Feldstein said.
“Unfortunately, this is the new normal, especially in California, because of climate change and other factors,” Feldstein said. “There is going to be another crisis. There is going to be another disaster after this, so we need something permanent.”
Advocates would argue that Washington does, too.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the May 6-12, 2020 issue.