There was calmness in the room as community members gathered to meet and listen to what freshman Congressman Josh Harder had to say as well as get answers to some questions asked by local citizens during a town hall meeting at the Saint Frances of Rome Church in Riverbank on Sunday, Aug. 4. Father Misael Avila expressed that it was important to hold this forum so that people can be informed and know who their Representatives are as well as to share their concerns. With the hot issues of immigration, ICE’s intentions, and mass shootings, there are some people in the community living in fear.
With rows of chairs being added in as people were finding a seat, the church hall/annex building was filling up as guests that needed to grabbed a head set for translation from Spanish to English.
“I think it went very well,” said Father Avila. “People seemed to be engaged and interested in the different topics that were discussed. It was very well attended. The hall was full. I was told there were about 150 people in attendance.”
After the pledge of allegiance and a greeting from Father Avila he introduced Victoria Moreno who discussed the importance of the 2020 Census and how everyone should participate. She expressed that all census personnel have to be sworn under oath to keep all information confidential. Moreno added that there are three ways that people can participate in the census: online, by mail, or by phone. With the data collected Moreno expressed that it would help bring resources and programs to the community. So when the April 2020 census takes place, her message was to not be afraid to participate.
After Moreno’s presentation, Congressman Harder stepped in to greet the crowd. He said a request from the people for him to come back to the Central Valley prior to when he was elected was one of the reasons he was there that day. He added that he ran for office because of the love he has for the Central Valley as a fifth generation resident. Harder expressed that his top three priorities are affordable healthcare for everyone, immigration reform that recognizes the community we live in and more jobs for the Central Valley.
“My biggest job in Washington is reminding people that California is more than SF and LA,” said Harder. “We need somebody that is going to listen and be responsive; that is why I ran. I have two jobs, one is to make sure that our community gets the help it needs with special agencies and so if any of you have a challenge with immigration visas, social security, Medicare, the IRS, veterans administration, my office is here to help.”
There were several people in the audience including Riverbank councilmembers Cal Campbell, Luis Uribe and Mayor Richard O’Brien. Some attendees were able to address Harder directly and some wrote questions on a form to turn into his staff. One of the questions was from a homeless woman who asked how Harder can help her in her current situation to which he replied that we need more affordable housing.
“Congressman Harder addressed the affordable housing issue from the national perspective,” stated O’Brien. “It is the local government that implements the programs. It is dependent upon the developer and incentives.”
There were also many questions about immigration and the intentions of ICE as well as the recent mass shootings in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton and how Harder can help the community.
“The main topic of discussion as I understood it was about getting involved in the democratic process but with the rise in anti-immigration rhetoric from the White House, the mass shootings … most questions from the audience highlighted that,” stated Uribe. “I want all residents to know that I stand with them regardless of their immigration status and we as a community will come together against this hate speech.”
Another person stepped up and expressed that people in the community are scared that Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirkse is working with ICE and that California is supposed to be a sanctuary state.
“My goal is to set a different tone than the one that you are seeing out of this President and out of Washington; one that recognizes the immigrant strength that we have and one that celebrates that and looks to actually fix some of the problems that are happening to our immigration system,” added Harder. “An immigration system that recognizes our American values. One that is humane that actually secures our borders and keeps our community safe in a way that is just. That is not the system that we have today, that is the system that we are trying to get to.”
Harder was asked why he was not on the list of supporters for the H-2A bill which is a program that allows U.S. employers that meet specific requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Harder expressed that he is very much a supporter of that bill which he called the blue card program and is doing everything he can to “push the bill across the finish line.”
He was even asked about his stance on the death penalty.
“I think a lot of folks in our community want there to be an ultimate price to pay for the most heinous crimes because that makes sense to me but the challenge I think we have is the deep injustice that currently exists in our criminal justice system,” said Harder. “There are huge inequities now. That is why at the current time I don’t think we should be pushing people to the death penalty in California. I think we need to move towards a criminal justice system where we could have faith in the legitimacy of that process.”
One guest received thunderous applause after he asked the Congressman about terrorism and the mass shootings where he heard that an hour before the massacre in El Paso all over the internet the gunman was targeting Mexicans but the FBI did not do anything due to free speech. He expressed that if he was Muslim and had anything like that on the internet, he would be arrested.
“The gentleman’s comments on terrorism were on point and changes in operational procedures from HLS, FBI needs to be the next priority,” stated O’Brien.
“The people’s concerns were legitimate,” agreed Uribe. “There is a double standard in our laws that allows one race to post on social media threats against another race and receive no repercussions. As one of the residents stated, had it been a Muslim, the FBI would have raided their home, arrested and interrogated them for months. Laws are on the books but residents feel they are being used to target one race over the other. The most important issue to me was the threat of domestic terrorism targeting colored communities. Riverbank has a diverse community and that is what makes us unique. The rhetoric coming from the White House is scapegoating immigrants and it needs to stop, the White House should be working toward uniting us instead of dividing us.”
Harder expressed that he does not agree with violent acts from anyone and they should be prosecuted at the full extent of the law regardless of ethnicity. He added that the laws are in the books but they are not being enforced the same for all. Harder also shared with the audience that he got word that the FBI did open a domestic terrorist case for the incident in El Paso.
“I felt Josh was very transparent when discussing the issues,” said Campbell. “He was respectful to the citizens speaking and he was very courteous to speakers with his answers if he didn’t agree with their point of view on the issue. He discussed and answered each speaker’s question as well as he could with the time permitted. Speakers seemed to accept his answers politely.”
“I’m not sure that they all got the help they were seeking because we needed more time to discuss very complex issues,” added Father Avila. “But I’m sure some of them did. In general I’ve received very positive comments. I think most people left the town hall meeting with a sense of hope.”