The Immigrants' Dilemma: To Boycott or Not to Boycott?

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Thousands gathered last week in Los Angeles, California, for an interfaith candlelight vigil and march to call on lawmakers to help illegal immigrants become citizens.

After flexing their potential political muscle by coming out in unprecedented numbers to protest immigration legislation, immigrants are now starting to show some divisions in the ranks. As May 1 approaches, immigrant rights groups across the country have been working feverishly to plan for what they are calling "A Day Without Immigrants," full of rallies, vigils, marches, strikes and boycotts. But a schism is growing among many of the day's organizers on how militant the message should be — whether they should encourage people to skip school, refuse to work and boycott local stores. On Monday, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, a fierce proponent of immigrant rights, released a statement encouraging his city's constituents to attend a city rally in the evening rather than abandon their posts on May 1; he even suggests bosses allot time for immigration discussions on the clock. According to Mahony's statement, students should "understand that boycotting school on May 1st will not bring about just and humane immigration reform — sometimes, boycotts could even work against positive reform."

In the wake of reports of workers being laid off and students being suspended after attending immigration rallies on company and school time, a number of immigration rights groups across the country are now viewing May 1 with the same wariness. Rather than looking at this day as an opportunity to paralyze the country, many coalitions are instead starting to promote activities that will coordinate with the workday, promote economic growth and help educate the public. That includes talking to their children about immigration before dropping them off at school, organizing a work lecture on voter registration, taking family to an evening vigil and, by all means, breaking out the wallet, especially for a community fundraiser. "People need to channel their energies in a positive direction," says Juan Carlos Ruiz, of the National Capital Immigration Coalition in Washington, D.C. "If other groups decide they want to do a boycott, we respect their strategy, but it is not one we chose."

One group that is staunchly supporting the boycott is the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA). "No work, no school, no buying, no selling; we will march in the streets to protest H.R. 4437," says Nativo Vigil Lopez, MAPA's president, referring to the immigration reform bill that is currently under House consideration. Lopez says he respects others' alternative tactics, but he feels that in order to "keep Democrats' feet to the fire," a day-long economic boycott and general strike is the only solution.

Even some once steadfast boycott proponents, including radio DJs in Los Angeles, seem to be softening their stance. It's a tough call for those who want to heed — or perhaps hawk — the call to action, but who do not want to unravel their ties with local industries, schools and churches. Gabriel Gonzalez of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights says they are strongly encouraging people to walk out of school and work that day to support the larger movement — but not to stop shopping: "We don't want to hurt the business community."

Many organizers who will not boycott believe that the movement is too young for such a radical display. "The action can't be for action's sake," says Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. She says she is concerned a boycott will not help the American public embrace immigrants, but could have much the opposite effect. "We have to be critical of our actions because at the end of the day, we have a long haul."