Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Immigrants Take to U.S. Streets in Show of Strength

Check out the photos from the NYTimes website. This is historic indeed. -Angela
Immigrants Take to U.S. Streets in Show of Strength
Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Thousands of people marched on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. More Photos >

Published: May 2, 2006

Truck drivers gathered in a park in Los Angeles, Calif. More Photos >

The demonstrations did not bring the nation to a halt as planned by
some organizers, though they did cause some disruptions and conveyed
in peaceful but sometimes boisterous ways the resolve of those who
favor loosening the country's laws on immigration.

Originally billed as a nationwide economic boycott under the banner
"Day Without an Immigrant," the day evolved into a sweeping round of
protests intended to influence the debate in Congress over granting
legal status to all or most of the estimated 11 million illegal
immigrants in the country.

The protesters, a mix of illegal immigrants and legal residents and
citizens, were mostly Latino, but in contrast to similar
demonstrations in the past two months, large numbers of people of
other ethnicities joined or endorsed many of the events. In some
cases, the rallies took on a broader tone of social action, as gay
rights advocates, opponents of the war in Iraq and others without a
direct stake in the immigration debate took to the streets.

"I think it's only fair that I speak up for those who can't speak for
themselves," said Aimee Hernandez, 28, one of an estimated 400,000
people who turned out in Chicago, the site of one of the largest
demonstrations. "I think we're just too many that you can't just send
them back. How are you going to ignore these people?"

But among those who favor stricter controls on illegal immigration,
the protests hardly impressed.

"When the rule of law is dictated by a mob of illegal aliens taking to
the streets, especially under a foreign flag, then that means the
nation is not governed by a rule of law – it is a mobocracy," Jim
Gilchrist, a founder of the Minutemen Project, a volunteer group that
patrols the United States-Mexico border, said in an interview.

While the boycott, an idea born several months ago among a small group
of grass-roots immigration advocates here, may not have shut down the
country, it was strongly felt in a variety of places, particularly
those with large Latino populations.

Stores and restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York closed
because workers did not show up or as a display of solidarity with
demonstrators. In Los Angeles, the police estimated that more than
half a million people attended two demonstrations in and near
downtown. School districts in several cities reported a decline in
attendance; at Benito Juarez High School in Pilsen, a predominantly
Latino neighborhood in Chicago, only 17 percent of the students showed
up, even though administrators and some protest organizers had urged
students to stay in school.

Lettuce, tomatoes and grapes went unpicked in fields in California and
Arizona, which contribute more than half the nation's produce, as
scores of growers let workers take the day off. Truckers who move 70
percent of the goods in ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif.,
did not work.

Meatpacking companies, including Tyson Foods and Cargill, closed
plants in the Midwest and the West employing more than 20,000 people,
while the flower and produce markets in downtown Los Angeles stood
largely and eerily empty.

Israel Banuelos, 23, and more than 50 of his colleagues skipped work,
with the grudging acceptance of his employer, an industrial paint
plant in Hollister, Calif.

"We were supposed to work," Mr. Banuelos said, "but we wanted to close
down the company. Our boss didn't like it money-wise."

The economic impact of the day's events was hard to gauge, though
economists expected a one-day stoppage to have little long-term
effect. In large swaths of the country, life went on with no
noticeable difference. But protesters in numerous cities, many clad in
white and waving mostly American flags in response to complaints that
earlier rallies featured too many Latin American ones, declared
victory as chanting throngs shut down streets.

Most of the demonstrators' ire was directed at a bill passed by the
House that would increase security at the border while making it a
felony for an illegal immigrant to be in the country or to aid one.
The marchers generally favored a plan in the Senate, for which
President Bush has shown signs of support, that would include more
protection at the border but offer many illegal workers a path to citizenship.

Still, the divide among advocates over the value and effectiveness of
a boycott resulted in some cities, including Los Angeles and San
Diego, playing host to two sizable demonstrations, one organized by
boycotters and the other by people neutral or opposed to it.

That split played out across the country. While many business owners
warned employees about taking the day off, many others also sought to
negotiate time off or other ways to register workers' sentiments.

Las Vegas casinos reported few disruptions, partly because many of
their owners announced their support for workers at a news conference
last week. On Monday, more than 40 casinos set up tables in employee
lunchrooms for workers to sign pro-immigration petitions.

Leaders of Local 226 of the Culinary Workers Union also urged members
to go to work. The union is Las Vegas's largest hospitality union,
representing 50,000 workers, of which 40 percent are Hispanic.

Smaller businesses in Las Vegas, where tens of thousands of
demonstrators gathered on the Strip, also took a hit. Javier Barajas
said he closed his family's four Mexican restaurants in Las Vegas
because members of his staff warned him they would not show up,
costing him more than $60,000 in revenue.

"I cannot fire anybody over this, but I would have liked to see some
other way to express themselves," said Mr. Barajas, who was once an
illegal immigrant from central Mexico but became a United States
citizen. "It's the small businesses that are hurt by this."

For many immigrants, however, it was just another workday.

At a Home Depot in Hollywood, day laborers as always crowded parking
lot entrances, hoping for work. At a car wash in the Echo Park
neighborhood of Los Angeles, employees buzzed, with workers vacuuming,
buffing and drying cars. People lined up at markets, though some
reported slower business.

"I was thinking about not buying things, but then I needed to buy
stuff," said Alex Sanchez, 28, a construction worker buying an
avocado, chilies and beer.

The boycott grew from an idea hatched by a small band of grass-roots
advocates in Los Angeles, inspired by the farmworker movement of the
1960's led by Cesar Chavez and Bert Corona. Through the Internet and
mass media catering to immigrants, they developed and tapped a network
of union organizers, immigrant rights groups and others to spread the
word and plan events tied to the boycott, timed to coincide with
International Workers' Day.

The Los Angeles organizers said some 70 cities held boycott activities.

The day spawned all manner of supportive actions here. A department
store chain offered space for lawyers to give legal advice to
immigrants; in Hollywood, the comedian Paul Rodriguez appeared at the
comedy club the Laugh Factory to promote a daylong health care fair
for immigrant workers.

In Chicago, there was solidarity in diversity, as Latinos were joined
by immigrants of Polish, Irish, Asian and African descent. Jerry
Jablonski, 30, said he had moved to Chicago from Poland six years ago,
flying to Mexico and then crossing the border. He now works a construction job.

"Poland is my old country," Mr. Jablonski said. "This is my new
country. I can make everything happen here."

Reporting for this article was contributed by Cindy Chang from Los
Angeles, Steve Friess from Las Vegas, Carolyn Marshall from
Watsonville, Calif., and Gretchen Ruethling from Chicago.



  2. For some reason I found myself in more support of this protest than ones in the previous months, however, I agree that the "Day without Immigrants" hurt small business owners more than it hurt the overall economy. Also it seems at this point that there is just a lot of noise being made, and nothing construction is being done anymore. The first few protests may have possibly made a difference, but after so many have occurred throughout the country, who is listening anymore?
    I also want to say that I appreciate that the author of the article mentioned what President Bush is trying to do. I like his idea about strenthging the borders but making it easier for those already here to receive their citizenship. I do not think that it makes sense to "send all the immigrants back" but I still do not agree that the US should just grant them all citizenship on the basis of "well there are so many of them, why don't we just give it to them?"