Marilyn Pharis murder sparks dueling protests on immigration policy

Published on August 18th, 2015

David Minsky
August 18, 2015
Santa Maria Sun

View a slideshow of the dueling protests.

On the same day that Victor Aureliano Martinez Ramirez and Jose Villagomez were arraigned the murder of 64-year-old Marilyn Pharis, groups armed with signs and chants took to the corner of Cook and Miller streets around noon on Aug. 13 to protest her death. 

But the groups weren’t exactly protesting the same thing. On the west side of Miller, closest to the courthouse where Ramirez, 29, and Villagomez, 20, made court appearances, dozens of picketers protested what they considered lax immigration policies across California and the U.S.

Protesters clashed on current immigration polices on the corner of Cook and Miller streets in Santa Maria on Aug. 13, the same day suspects Victor Aureliano Martinez Ramirez and Jose Villagomez were charged for the murder and torture of 64-year-old Air Force veteran Marilyn Pharis.

A counter protest was held in equal numbers on the opposite side of the street by members of pro-immigrant organizations, such as the Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy (CAUSE).

On July 24, police say that Ramirez and Villagomez attacked Pharis in her home in the 900 block of North DeJoy Street. Pharis, a military contractor who worked at Vandenberg Air Force Base, died from her injuries eight days later. Police said that she was sexually assaulted and struck repeatedly with a hammer. 

Ramirez is an undocumented immigrant who was booked into jail several times by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, including most recently on July 17. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman Lori Haley said that ICE became aware of Ramirez’s status while he was in jail and issued a detainer. However, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Kelly Hoover told the Sun that they wouldn’t legally hold Ramirez for ICE unless they had a court order signed by a federal judge, which they didn’t. 

The case has gained national attention. Echoing Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin’s statement last week that current immigration policies contributed directly to Pharis’ death, several protestors vented their frustrations with the current system.

Michael Rivera, who said he was a Santa Maria resident but ended up moving to Paso Robles in 2003, said “illegal” immigrants are draining public resources. He cites the number of people in Santa Maria who are on some form of public assistance, which he says numbers six out of every 10 people. 

“The dependency level in this town is extraordinary,” Rivera said. “This isn’t about hate. This is about stopping horrendous crimes by people who shouldn’t even be here.”

Others blamed the quality of neighborhoods they say have degenerated throughout the years and the difficulty in getting out of them. 

Monica Wright, a 60-year-old who lived two blocks from Pharis, said she had to move to a different neighborhood because of the problems she encountered. 

Denice Adams with the Californians for Population Stabilization said that declining property values and high taxes make it difficult for residents to move out of their homes. 

“We always say it’s not who, it’s how many,” Adams said. “Why can’t we be allowed to live in neighborhoods surrounded by people who are a part of my culture?”

However, folks from CAUSE said that the anti-immigration types were using the tragedy of Pharis’ death for the wrong reasons.

“They’re generalizing a group of people,” said CAUSE Organizing Director Hazel Davalos. 


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