Illegal immigrants and their supporters vowed to keep up the pressure on Congress for reforms after more than 1 million people stepped out of the shadows and poured into the streets in a nationwide show of economic clout.
From Los Angeles to Chicago, Houston to Miami, a “Day Without Immigrants” on Monday meant a day boycotting work and school in favor of rallies and marches with waves of red, white and blue filling streets for miles.
“We have far exceeded our expectations,” said Mahonrry Hidalgo, chairman of the Immigration Committee of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey. “The events are intended to show solidarity and, at the same time, send a message that injustice against the immigrant community is unacceptable. This is not the end of our struggle. It is the beginning.”
The boycott was organized by immigrant activists angered by federal legislation that would criminalize an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants and fortify the U.S-Mexico border.
While some businesses suffered, the marches were festive — despite divisions among activists who argued a boycott would alienate federal lawmakers.
In all, police departments and local officials in more than two dozen U.S. cities contacted by The Associated Press gave crowd estimates that totaled about 1.1 million marchers.
Two major rallies in Los Angeles attracted an estimated 400,000, according to the mayor’s office. Another 400,000 marched through Chicago’s downtown business district, police estimated. The list was long: As many as 30,000 in Houston, 50,000 in San Jose, 30,000 more across Florida. From New Mexico to Tennessee to Massachusetts, smaller rallies attracted hundreds more.
'We are America'
Marchers standing shoulder-to-shoulder sang and chanted and danced in the streets wearing American flags as capes and bandanas. In most cities, those who rallied wore white to signify peace and solidarity and waved signs reading “We are America” and “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.”
In Los Angeles, marchers held U.S. flags aloft and sang the national anthem in English as traditional Mexican dancers and Korean drummers wove through the crowd. In Philadelphia, about a thousand people from different marches converged in the historic area near the Liberty Bell.
In Washington, D.C., rallies were scattered but the White House took note — spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush disapproved of the boycott.
While most demonstrations were peaceful, a Santa Ana rally of 5,000 in California was marred by people hurling rocks and plastic bottles at officers. Police made several arrests, but it was unclear if they were protesters.
Two people were arrested in Los Angeles on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. Both men had been throwing rocks and bottles at police, Officer Jason Lee said.
And a march in Seattle was disrupted when a car struck a group of marchers, though injuries were minor: The driver was arrested, five other people were arrested for possible weapons violations and one person was arrested for obstructing.
Industries that rely on immigrant workers were clearly affected, though the impact was not uniform. There was low attendance at hotels in Indianapolis, construction sites in Miami and plant nurseries and landscapers across a wide area.
Tyson Foods Inc., the world’s largest meat producer, shuttered about a dozen of its more than 100 plants. Eight of 14 Perdue Farms chicken plants also closed for the day.
The rallies shut down 29 branches of Chipotle Mexican Grill, a Denver-based fast-casual dining chain. Goya Foods, which bills itself as the nation’s largest Hispanic-owned food chain, suspended delivery everywhere except Florida in what the company called a gesture of solidarity.
In the Los Angeles area, many restaurants and markets were dark and truck traffic at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — the nation’s busiest — was off 90 percent, said spokeswoman Theresa Adams Lopez.
The construction industry was hard hit in Florida. More than half the workers at construction sites in Miami-Dade County did not show up, according to Bill Spann, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Florida.
“If I lose my job, it’s worth it,” said Jose Cruz, an immigrant from El Salvador who rather than working his construction job protested with several thousand others in the rural city of Homestead outside Miami. “It’s worth losing several jobs to get my papers.”
About 35 to 40 anti-immigration demonstrators got into shouting matches with pro-immigration marchers as they were leaving a Denver park. Among them were Ron and Marge Mason of Thornton, a Denver suburb.
“We’re tired of seeing the illegals coming in,” Ron Mason said.
Impact on school systems
College Republicans at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte staged a rally of their own Monday, demanding tougher enforcement of existing immigration laws. The GOP group sold $5 bricks symbolic of a wall it said was needed to secure U.S. borders.
The impact on some school systems was significant. In the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District, which is 73 percent Hispanic, about 72,000 middle and high school students were absent — roughly one in every four.
In San Francisco, Benita Olmedo pulled her 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son from school.
“I want my children to know their mother is not a criminal,” said Olmedo, a nanny who came here illegally in 1986 from Mexico. “I want them to be as strong I am. This shows our strength.”
“You should send all of the 13 million aliens home, then you take all of the welfare recipients who are taking a free check and make them do those jobs,” said Jack Culberson, a retired Army colonel who attended the Pensacola rally. “It’s as simple as that.”
Jesse Hernandez, who owns a Birmingham, Ala., company that supplies Hispanic laborers to companies around the Southeast, shut down his four-person office in solidarity with the demonstrations.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “human nature is that you don’t really know what you have until you don’t have it.”