Behind the Scenes of a "Day Without Immigrants"

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LYNNE SLADKY / AP

Mexican immigrant Marco Antonio participates in an immigration rally in Homestead, Fla., during a planned national day of economic protests, boycotting work, school and shopping to show the importance of immigrants to the country

The usually hectic main thoroughfare in Cicero, Ill., a largely Latino suburb just west of Chicago, was eerily desolate this morning as marchers of all ages prepared for a day of civic action. Although economic boycotts and labor strikes are being officially discouraged by organizers of May 1 immigrant solidarity activities in and around Chicago, nearly all independent retailers in Cicero, among other heavily Hispanic communities, will be closed for the day to allow workers to participate in the day’s political events. Jose Torres, owner of El Meson Mexican restaurant, closed his busy taqueria on Cermak Road — forgoing nearly $3000 in revenues — so he could take to the streets along with his immediate family and 18 employees, all of whom will be paid their regular salary for the day. "This country has given me a lot of opportunities," said the successful restaurateur, who arrived in Chicago in 1975 as an illegal and was granted legal status 10 years ago. The sacrifices he makes for one day will be worth it, Torres said, if the protestors are successful in stopping draconian immigration legislation from passing.

Not all immigration leaders support the boycotts and store closures. "No Falte a su Trabajo! No Falte a la Escuela!" ("Don’t Skip Work! Don’t Skip School!") read flyers plastered up and down Cicero's Cermak Road. Rather than advocating work and spending stoppages or classroom boycotts, as is the case in other cities. Chicago protest leaders are taking a more moderate approach. Sending a united message calling for "fair and reasonable" reform, Chicago area leaders are mobilizing voter registration tables, legalization petitions directed at members of Congress and public demonstrations. Two large marches, one from the north, the other from the south, are scheduled to converge at a huge rally in downtown Grant Park this afternoon.

Regardless of disagreements over the boycott, there's no question that much of the usual customer base in Cicero and elsewhere will evaporate today, causing local retail spending to take a major hit. Illinois has an estimated 285,000 undocumented workers, nearly the same number of protest participants that Chicago-area organizers are projecting for today. At the city’s March 10 immigrant rally, about 100,000 were estimated to have demonstrated downtown in a far more hastily planned grassroots effort.

Juan Soto, who works at Durango Western Wear, said his boss has given everyone the day off — with pay — to march, but he personally will not protest. "I think there have already been too many marches. We’ve made our point," said the Mexican-born Soto, who says he is a legal resident. He plans to stay home and honor the spirit of the boycott. "I’ll watch it on TV, but I plan to spend zero dollars." He said the true economic impact of work stoppages by immigrants — legal and illegal — will be felt not from a boycott lasting one day, but if the customers who are here illegally are deported "If there are a lot of deportations" — under a proposed federal crackdown — "that’s what’s going to hurt the American economy," Soto said.

Boosting the ranks at today’s events are a sizeable number of supportive non-immigrants. Colleen Gomez, a mother of two, whose ex-husband is Mexican, will be marching with her two hooky-playing daughters ages 14 and 6. "I grew up around Mexicans, and if people are over here and work hard, why shouldn’t they be able to stay?" said Gomez, a Chicago native who described her heritage as German, Irish and Danish. Gomez said the march may be as educational for her half-Mexican children as a day spent in school. She notified their schools of their impending absences, and found no objections. "They’re going to learn a lot by coming with me. They’ll be part of history."

Gomez works as a receptionist at the FamilyMed health Clinic in Cicero, which will also close for the day. Her boss, Dr. Vittorio Caterino, a native of Italy who emigrated to the U.S. as a child in 1970 with this family, said proposed legislation that would label masses of tax-paying illegals as felons is unconscionable. Caterino will close his office doors and take to the streets in support today. "Do politicians even think about who picks vegetables in this country or who’s working in restaurants they go to? It makes no sense to deport all these people."

Caterino said the Hippocratic oath requires him to treat any patients who need his help, and neither he nor his staff ever inquire about the legal status of their largely immigrant patient population. "I don’t care if my patients are here legally or not, and 99% of the doctors I know don’t care either."

The FamilyMed center was unusually busy Sunday afternoon before the march. Caterino, a podiatrist, said at least three middle-aged patients had already come to see him specifically seeking anti-inflammatory prescriptions in anticipation of the arduous day ahead. "They’re concerned about their joints, ligaments and tendons," he said.