IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Nation braces for ‘Day Without Immigrants’

Workers tend to lettuce field near Salinas California
Workers tend to a lettuce field on Sunday near Salinas, Calif. Immigrant groups in the United States have called for a one-day strike and school boycott, as part of a campaign for immigration reform. The May Day protest is intended to show the impact of immigrant contributions to the U.S. economy.Robert Galbraith / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Now that immigrants have grabbed the nation’s attention, what next?

Monday has been set aside for immigrants to boycott work, school and shopping to show how much they matter to their communities. But with some growing tired of street protests, and others afraid they’ll be deported or fired for walking out, people are planning to support the effort in myriad ways.

Some will work but buy nothing on Monday. Others will protest at lunch breaks or at rallies after work. There will be church services, candlelight vigils, picnics and human chains.

The range of activities shows both how powerful the immigrants’ rights movement has become in a matter of weeks, and that organizers don’t yet have a clear focus on its next step.

“It’s highly unpredictable what’s going to happen,” said Harley Shaiken, director of the Center for Latin American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “What unites everyone that’s going to do something on May 1 is they are making visible their strong feelings.”

Thanks to the success of previous rallies plus media attention, planning for Monday’s events, collectively called Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes — A Day Without Immigrants — is widespread.

Officials in Los Angeles braced for huge crowds: Assistant Police Chief George Gascon said as many as 500,000 people could take part.

In smaller cities such as Allentown, Pa., Omaha, Neb., and Knoxville, Tenn., immigrants and their allies have been going door to door with fliers, making posters and sharpening speeches. In New Mexico, restaurants cooked meals this weekend that they’ll donate food for Monday picnics in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

In Pomona, Calif., about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, dozens of men who frequent a day labor center voted unanimously to close Monday, said Mike Nava, the center’s director.

“If anyone even comes around looking for work that day,” Nava said, “the men want him suspended.”

The step beyond marches
Some insist that a boycott is the next key step — beyond marches — to show the nation just how much economic power undocumented workers hold. “The marches are a tool, but they are being overused,” said Mahonrry Hidalgo, head of the immigration committee of New Jersey’s Latino Leadership Alliance. Like civil rights boycotts of decades past, he said, “this could finally be the spark for our people to advance.”

In New Jersey, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, people boycotting work will march to the offices of elected officials to urge them to support pro-immigrant legislation. In California, although a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said a boycott would “hurt everyone,” Democratic state senators passed a resolution supporting walkouts.

Still, there’s a big divide over the boycott’s merits.

“To encourage people not to go to work or children not to go to school is counterproductive,” Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

Impromptu fence on the Calif. border
Opponents of illegal immigration spent the weekend building a fence to symbolize their support of a secure border. About 200 volunteers organized by the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps of California worked on a six-foot barbed-wire fence along a quarter-mile stretch of rugged terrain near the U.S.-Mexico border about 50 miles east of San Diego.

Many worry that not working or spending money will alienate business leaders, and that cutting classes sends an anti-education message. Even Los Angeles’ Spanish-language disc jockeys, who helped fuel marches hundreds of thousands strong in recent weeks, have toned it down. “We have to demonstrate that we came here to succeed,” said Eduardo Sotelo, whose morning show, “Piolin por la Manana,” is syndicated nationwide.

Many of Monday’s organizers are finding less contentious ways of joining.

Some marches and voter information meetings are scheduled for after work and school hours. Those who go to school or work are being urged to wear white clothes or white armbands. Several school districts have sent letters home to parents and threatened punishment if students have unexcused absences, but some plan to focus on immigration issues in classes and seminars on campus.

In each of New York City’s five boroughs, thousands of workers are expected to take work breaks shortly after noon to link arms with shoppers, restaurant-goers and other supporters along city sidewalks for about 20 minutes. “This will symbolize the interdependence of all of us, not just immigrants, but all of society,” said Chung-Wa Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.

Organizers in Phoenix hoped to have enough people to make a 25-mile human chain winding through the city to symbolize the unity of the Latino community on the day observed elsewhere around the world as International Workers’ Day. However, they canceled that plan because of safety concerns and instead set out several smaller demonstrations.

Many hope that workers’ bosses also will join their efforts — and some already are showing their support.

Some big businesses are shutting down operations, corporate spokesmen said: Six of 14 Perdue Farms plants will close; Gallo Wines in Sonoma, Calif., is giving its 150 employees the day off; Tyson Foods Inc., the world’s largest meat producer, will shut five of its nine beef plants and four of six pork plants.

Greg Schirf, owner of Wasatch Beers in Utah, said that when some of his Latino employees sheepishly asked if they could take off Monday, he responded: “How about this? We’ll just take a company holiday. We’ll call it ’Latino Appreciation Day.”’

Elsewhere, ‘a lot of fear’
Such attitudes are quelling some of the anxiety that has bubbled up nationwide since federal officials arrested more than 1,100 immigrant employees and seven managers at 40 sites of IFCO Systems, which makes crates and pallets. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he plans to step up workplace enforcement of immigration laws.

“During information we’ve been presenting to different organizations (about Monday’s events), we usually spend 20 to 30 minutes just explaining if we were to have or not have a raid,” said Houston activist Maria Jimenez of the Central American Resource Center. “We’ve seen a lot of fear in the community.”

Many are expected to find solace in religious services.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged immigrants to attend Mass instead of boycotting, and suggested that churches toll their bells in memory of immigrants who died trying to come to the U.S.