Boycott Gives Voice To Illegal Workers

Posted in Other | 02-May-06 | Author: Darryl Fears and Krissah Willi| Source: Washington Post

Oscar Jimenez carries a giant American flag to an immigrant rights march in Chicago.

The Day's Impact On Economy Unclear

Through rallies and boycotts of schools and businesses across the nation yesterday, illegal immigrants and their supporters sought to present a case to the American people that they are vital to the country's economy and should not be subject to deportation.

Demonstrators opposed to strict immigration proposals in Congress staged huge marches in Chicago and Los Angeles, curtailed operations at at least one major port, shut down construction sites in the District, forced the closing of crossings at the Mexican border and halted work at meat-processing plants in the Midwest. Although the protests caught the nation's attention, the economic impact was mixed, as many immigrants heeded the call of some leaders not to jeopardize their jobs, and businesses adopted strategies to cope with absent employees.

More than 300,000 demonstrators marched in Chicago, and another 300,000 took to the streets of Los Angeles to shout their disapproval of House measures that would make it a felony to be in the country illegally and to help those who are. In the District, more than 1,000 people rallied at Meridian Hill Park -- also known as Malcolm X Park -- in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, and smaller rallies were held in Herndon, Alexandria and Baileys Crossroads. Immigrants also marched in San Francisco, Phoenix, Atlanta and many other cities.

The action may have been stronger had the coalition of grass-roots organizations that advises immigrants not been deeply conflicted over whether to endorse a boycott. Some supported the effort to demonstrate immigrant power, but others discouraged it, saying it was premature because Congress has not taken action since the first demonstrations, and because the strike might induce a backlash by those born in the United States.

"I think that for the most part, people in the community understood the reasons why . . . we asked them to go to work and go to school," said Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigration Coalition of Washington, part of an immigrant coalition that discourages boycotting before Congress can act. "Rest assured, if we don't have a bill we can live with, we will have a general strike and a general boycott."

Clearly, protesters in Washington did not want to wait that long. More than half of the 1,147 construction workers on projects at Dulles International Airport did not show up, said airports spokeswoman Tara Hamilton. Work on an underground tunnel linking airport terminals continued, but at a slower pace, she said.

Several businesses in the District, such as the Corner Bakery on Vermont Avenue downtown and La Chaumiere in Georgetown, shut their doors because their workers chose to boycott.

"Unfortunately, most of our kitchen staff is Spanish and they decided to be part of the movement," said La Chaumiere night manager Marielle Minges.

Oscar Mendez stayed home in Alexandria with his wife and three children. "We want to show the government that all the work in this country is impossible without us," said Mendez, who is El Salvadoran.

At Davis Construction, a large Rockville-based general contractor, many of the workers were absent yesterday. "We are missing them," chief executive Jim Davis said. "It is having an impact."

The protests drew few counter-demonstrations, though the chief House proponent of tough measures against illegal immigrants said the boycott would help his cause.

"I couldn't be happier, because every single time this kind of thing happens, the polls show that more and more Americans turn against the protesters and whatever it is they are trying to advance," Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) told the Reuters news agency in an interview.

Still, the boycotters tried to make their presence felt wherever they could.

The boycott rippled through Prince George's County schools that serve many Latino immigrant families. About 150 Bladensburg Elementary students -- a quarter of the school's population -- stayed home. About 140 stayed home from Adelphi Elementary, more than one-third of that school's population. One school system official said attendance at several other schools was "way down."

At C.D. Hylton High School in Woodbridge, for example, 143 of 392 students did not show up. And more than half of the Latino students at Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas were absent. Prince William school officials saw unusually high absentee rates among Hispanics, especially in high schools.

In Montgomery County, 70 schools reported more than 25 percent of their Latino students absent, said spokesman Brian K. Edwards. A spokesman for Fairfax schools reported higher-than-usual absenteeism but said "it's not spectacular." The principal at Annandale High School said 139 of 609 Hispanic students were absent.

Roxanne Evans, a spokeswoman for the D.C. schools, could not provide absentee figures but said that, according to preliminary reports, several schools appeared to have an unusually high number of absences.

High absentee rates were also reported in schools in other parts of the nation, particularly California. 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.

Ricardo Juarez, coordinator for Mexicans Without Borders in Northern Virginia, the most vocal local proponent of the boycott, called the action a success because of the construction slowdown and closed strips of Latino-owned businesses.

"What is happening around this region is a part of all the impact around the nation," he said.

At least a dozen meat-processing plants owned by Tyson Foods Inc. were forced to close, said spokesman Gary Mickelson, "but most of the more than 100 plants were running," he said. But, he added, "there were higher absentee rates than usual." Some of the plants that were closed will operate on Saturday to offset the lack of production.

In Chicago, flag-waving marchers paraded through downtown streets, chanting " ¡Si se puede! " and "Yes we can!" Though there was no boycott called there, businesses were shuttered throughout the city and suburbs as owners of restaurants, stores, insurance agencies, bars, auto repair outfits and other enterprises gave employees the day off, some with pay, to attend the march.

"The biggest message is we have a voice. This is something people have wanted to happen for a long time," said Rudy Martinez, 27, whose mother was born in Mexico. "A lot of us said, 'We have to do something before it's too late.' "

At the country's busiest port of entry, between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Ysidro, Calif., a surge of Mexican protesters heckled travelers coming into the United States and forced the border patrol to slow traffic at the 24-lane crossing. Protests also forced the temporary closing of crossings at Tecate, Calif., and Laredo and Hidalgo in Texas, where representatives of human rights groups, labor unions and Catholic churches, as well as deported Mexican immigrants, chanted, " ¡No va a pasar! " -- "You will not pass!"

The agriculture industry saw some impact in California's Central Valley, where growers are harvesting lettuce and thinning fruit trees. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of fieldworkers elected not to go to work Monday, said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League.

At the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles -- which, averaging 30,000 truck trips a day, is the busiest combined U.S. seaport -- there was little or no truck traffic as thousands of truck drivers, mostly Latinos, stayed home.

"We have no truck activity," said Theresa Adams Lopez, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles port. Demonstrating truckers parked their rigs illegally to block roads leading into the port, but police had them towed, she said.

Art Wong, spokesman for the Long Beach port, said rail traffic was lighter than usual but functioning normally. Freight workers had prepared for the boycott by working overtime last week and throughout the weekend.

Adams Lopez said: "The point was made, but whether it's really going to shut down commerce remains to be seen."

Her refrain was echoed locally -- "It's not affecting us at all," said a harried maitre d' at Spago's in Beverly Hills -- and throughout the nation.

In Las Vegas, the strike's effect seemed minimal, perhaps because of hardball tactics adopted by the larger hotels.

The Wynn Las Vegas hotel and casino told its 10,000 employees that "if they called out and were not sick that they would be disciplined up to and including termination," said Arte Nathan, chief human resources officer. As a result, only two workers called in.

"We are amazed. We are thrilled," Nathan said.

The MGM-Mirage, which runs casinos such as the MGM-Grand, Treasure Island and the Bellagio, reported minimal absences among its 60,000 employees, about one-third of whom are Latino, spokeswoman Debra Nelson said.