A Day Without Immigrants: Making a Statement

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They may not have agreed on whether to skip school, take the day off work or refrain from all commerce today, but the hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors who turned out in major cities across the country on Monday clearly conveyed their message that immigrants are essential to the U.S. economy and deserve the right to continue living and working here. With rallies in more than 50 cities from Las Vegas to Miami, the day of protest brought together immigrants from all walks of life and appeared to overcome early concerns that rifts within the Latino community would hamper their success.

Anna Garcia, a native of Honduras, says she attended the Miami rally because "the U.S. government needs to know we're all united. They have to know we are here and being productive." In Cicero, Ill., a mostly Hispanic suburb of Chicago, the usually hectic downtown area was eerily desolate as marchers of all ages joined an estimated 300,000 people in the Windy City, who chanted, "Today we march, tomorrow we vote." Jose Torres, owner of the popular El Meson Mexican Restaurant in Cicero, who marched with his family and 18 employees, said he gave up over $3000 in revenue by closing on Monday, but that the sacrifice was worth it. "This country has given me a lot of opportunities," says Torres, who also paid his workers for the day.

Students played a key role in Monday's marches. Although school superintendents and politicians had urged students to stay in class, many kids played hooky anyway. In Chicago, an estimated 70% to 90% of students at the predominantly Latino high schools did not show up for school, according to Ana Vargas, a Chicago public schools spokeswoman. In Los Angeles, some 72,000 students in 6th to 12th grades skipped classes, according to the Los Angeles Unified School District. Ulises Estrada, a 16-year-old student at South Dade High School in Homestead, Fla., said he joined a local march because he has been waiting for legalization since he was a year old — when his parents brought him over the border with them from Yucatan, Mexico. "I speak fluent English. I study hard, and I want to join the Army when I graduate," he said. "Without us, where would this country be today?"

While the turnout appeared to meet its planners' expectations, it's harder to assess the day's economic impact. Goya Foods, the largest Hispanic-owned company in the U.S., suspended all deliveries on Monday. The United Farm Workers of America reported that nearly all fresh fruit and vegetable workers in California — from the vineyards in Sonoma to the strawberry fields in Salinas — took the day off. Meanwhile, several large employers of Latinos, including chicken processors Perdue Farms and Tyson Farms, shut several of their plants to accommodate workers who stayed home to support the economic boycott.

Some workers took the day off without permission. Jose Cruz, who is from El Salvador, told the Associated Press that he was willing to lose his construction job in Homestead, Fla., in order to attend the rally there. "If I lose my job, it's worth it," he said. "It's worth losing several jobs to get my papers." Some businesses that employ large numbers of immigrants, however, reported little absenteeism. One of the nation's largest poultry producers, Gold Kist in Georgia, reported that only 400 of its 16,000 workers, half of whom are immigrants from Latin America, skipped work on Monday.

Despite the huge marches in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, many immigrants skipped the boycott either for fear of losing their jobs or because they simply could not afford to lose even a single day's wages. Orlando Sandoval of Nicaragua did not attend the rally in Miami because he was afraid if he missed a day answering phones or packing fish at Signature Seafood, he would be fired. In Chicago, Manuel Escelante, a Honduran who works for the Chicago Park District, was busy cleaning the very park that the organizers were using as a rallying point. "I can't leave my job," he said. " I'm with them, my heart, but I have a job to do. I have to work. "

Even those who did not advocate boycotting school or work were still able to participate in the day's events. In Los Angeles and New York City, rallies were scheduled for 4 p.m., so school-age kids wouldn't miss classes. Still others planned to attend church services or to join the protests during their lunch breaks. Rather than simply walk off the job, some workers requested paid time off or shifted their regular work schedule to later in the day. Orlando Garcia, a native of Honduras who now owns a trucking business in Miami, took the day off to attend the Miami rally, but planned to go back to work at 5 p.m.

Some Latino leaders such as Max Rodas, an evangelical minister and spokesperson for the Cleveland Coalition of Latino Pastors, said that, while they support the ideas behind the march, they decided not to participate because they don't think it would be effective in bringing about substantive changes to improve immigrants' lives. "We need to be building coalitions with African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, because they actually vote, and politicians are scared of them. Politicians aren't scared of us," said Rodas. "We need to do the hard work. We need to organize our neighborhoods from the ground up. You can't do that by leading just another march."

Those opposed to the protests spoke out Monday as well, although they turned out in much smaller numbers. At a Home Depot in Phoenix, Republican National Committeeman Randy Pullen told gatherers, "The demonstrators here today do not speak for law-abiding Latino-American citizens." In Washington, a coalition called "You Don't Speak For Me" held a press conference denouncing the boycott and illegal immigration. And some Latino business owners declined to give their workers the day off. Dick Jackson, the manager at K&A Lumber in Homestead, Fla., made it clear to his 150 day-shift workers (95% of whom are Hispanic) that they had to be at work today. "I'm kind of old-school, and I think we ought to follow the laws of this country," he said. "But does the country need these people? Without a doubt, yes."