Immigrants walk off jobs, into streets, showing economic clout
LOS ANGELES ” Hundreds of thousands of mostly Hispanic immigrants skipped work and took to the streets Monday, flexing their newfound political muscle in a nationwide boycott that succeeded in slowing or shutting many farms, factories, markets and restaurants.
From Los Angeles to Chicago, New Orleans to Houston, the “Day Without Immigrants” attracted widespread participation despite divisions among activists over whether a boycott would send the right message to Washington lawmakers considering sweeping immigration reform.
“I want my children to know their mother is not a criminal,” said Benita Olmedo, a nanny who came here illegally in 1986 from Mexico and pulled her 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son from school to march in San Diego. “I want them to be as strong I am. This shows our strength.”
Police estimated 300,000 people marched through Chicago’s business district, and hundreds of thousands more were expected at rallies in New York and Los Angeles. Smaller rallies were planned in more than 50 other cities across the nation.
In heavily Hispanic Perth Amboy, N.J., a normally bustling business district was quiet and still. Block after block of record shops, cafes and produce stores were shuttered on the usually traffic-choked street.
In the Los Angeles area, normally bustling restaurants and markets were dark and truckers avoided the nation’s largest shipping port. About one in three small businesses was closed downtown, including the cluttered produce market and fashion district.
Industries that rely on immigrant workers were clearly affected, though the impact was not uniform.
Tyson Foods Inc., the world’s largest meat producer, shuttered about a dozen of its more than 100 plants and saw “higher-than-usual absenteeism” at others. Most of the closures were in states such as Iowa and Nebraska. Eight of 14 Perdue Farms chicken plants also closed for the day.
Organizers of the rallies instructed protesters to wear white and bring American flags to symbolize peaceful intentions and love of the United States. Many carried signs in Spanish that translated to “We are America” and “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.” Others waved Mexican flags or wore hats and scarves from their native countries. Some chanted “USA” while others shouted slogans, such as “Si se puede!,” Spanish for “Yes, it can be done!”
“We are the backbone of what America is, legal or illegal, it doesn’t matter,” said Melanie Lugo, who was among thousands attending a rally in Denver with her husband and their third-grade daughter.
“We butter each other’s bread. They need us as much as we need them,” she said.
The White House reacted coolly.
“The president is not a fan of boycotts,” said press secretary Scott McClellan. “People have the right to peacefully express their views, but the president wants to see comprehensive reform pass the Congress so that he can sign it into law.”
The boycott was organized by immigrant activists angered by federal legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants and fortify the U.S-Mexico border. The event split the burgeoning movement, however ” some advocated attending school and work but rallying after business hours.
Ernest Calderon, a 38-year-old concrete worker, came to the Chicago rally with a sign listing the names of his heroes: Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Pancho Villa.
“Our heroes understood that they had to fight for freedom and democracy, and we are here doing the same,” said Calderon, who came from Mexico and gained his citizenship more than a decade ago. “We are here for the same reasons.”
None of the 175 seasonal laborers who normally work Mike Collins’ 500 acres of Vidalia onion fields in southeastern Georgia showed up Monday.
“We need to be going wide open this time of year to get these onions out of the field,” he said. “We’ve got orders to fill. Losing a day in this part of the season causes a tremendous amount of problems.”
It was the same story in Indiana, where the owner of a landscaping business said he was at a loss. About 25 Hispanic workers ” 90 percent of the field work force ” never reported Monday to Salsbery Brothers Landscaping.
“We’re basically shut down in our busiest month of the year,” said owner Jeff Salsbery. “It’s going to cost me thousands of dollars.”
The construction and nursery industries were among the hardest hit by the work stoppage in Florida.
Bill Spann, executive vice president of the Association of General Contractors, said more than half the workers at construction sites in Miami-Dade County did not show up Monday.
“If I lose my job, it’s worth it,” said Jose Cruz, an immigrant from El Salvador who protested with several thousand others in the rural Florida city of Homestead rather than work his construction job. “It’s worth losing several jobs to get my papers.”
The impact on schools was not so clear. In Santa Ana, the Orange County seat, about 3,000 middle and high school students were absent. The 62,000-student district is about 90 percent Hispanic.
Not far away, in the normally bustling Port of Long Beach, about 30 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, was eerily quiet, with many truck drivers avoiding work. Lunch truck operator Sammy Rodriguez, 77, said 100 trucks normally line up in the mornings outside the California United Terminals. On Monday, he said, just three or four showed up.
Some of the rallies drew small numbers of counter-protesters, including one in Pensacola, Fla.
“You should send all of the 13 million aliens home, then you take all of the welfare recipients who are taking a free check and make them do those jobs,” said Jack Culberson, a retired Army colonel who attended the Pensacola rally. “It’s as simple as that.”
Jesse Hernandez, who owns a Birmingham, Ala., company that supplies Hispanic laborers to companies around the Southeast, shut down his four-person office in solidarity with the demonstrations.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “human nature is that you don’t really know what you have until you don”t have it.”
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