TOPICS > Politics

Immigrants Protest Across U.S.

May 1, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

JEFFREY KAYE, Reporter, KCET: Walking away from their jobs and classrooms, thousands of people, many waving American flags, gathered on the streets of Los Angeles today. Among them, hotel worker Victoria Vergara.

VICTORIA VERGARA, Hotel Worker (through translator): We are not criminal; we are workers. We contribute to this country, and it’s only fair that they legalize those who don’t have documents.

JEFFREY KAYE: Vergara and other demonstrators were galvanized by proposed federal legislation that would make illegal immigration a crime. By withholding their labor and their buying power, protestors hoped to showcase the economic clout of illegal immigrants, who comprise an estimated 15 percent of the L.A. labor force.

The first economic effects of the May Day boycott were seen early this morning in downtown Los Angeles. A wholesale produce market, normally bustling with activity, was all but deserted. Stalls were closed, and trucks were at a standstill.

Have you ever seen it like this?

RUBEN CALDERON, Produce Manager: No, never, not even on Sundays.

Los Angeles participates in boycott

JEFFREY KAYE: Merchant Ruben Calderon, himself an immigrant from Mexico, gave his five workers the day off. He's says he'll lose as much as $4,000 in sales, but he says it's for a good cause.

RUBEN CALDERON: It's a lot of hard times for the immigrants right now, and I think it's the right time to, you know, let them talk, you know, let them notice that they're here, and they're here for good, because they're hard-working people, so I think they need, you know, some kind of a legal status to be here.

JEFFREY KAYE: Early-morning commuters into downtown Los Angeles found light traffic today. Normally crowded buses were nearly empty.

Businesses weren't the only places affected by the boycott. Outside Belmont High School, which is 91 percent Latino, junior Cynthia Contreras urged students to demonstrate. She said many kids here illegally won't be able to get a higher education.

CYNTHIA CONTRERAS, High School Student: Most students immigrated when they were very small with their families; they didn't choose to come here. But, unfortunately, they can't continue their education just because they don't have the legal status.

JEFFREY KAYE: A key architect of today's protest was immigrant rights activist Nativo Lopez. He says a boycott is the most potent way to show America's reliance on undocumented immigrants.

NATIVO LOPEZ, Mexican-American Political Association: If people just stop and reflect, OK, change your own children's diapers, mow your own lawn, fix your own car, program your own computer, change the diapers of your elders that are in convalescent homes, do all the other grimy, dirty, stoop, difficult labor that immigrants do, and then truly you'll appreciate their tremendous value to society and reward them with legalizing their status.

JEFFREY KAYE: It was a message that resonated, even with those who constantly struggle to find work. Last week, these day laborers in Hollywood said they would honor today's work stoppage.

THOMAS LOPEZ, Day Laborer (through translator): If we've crossed the border, crossed the deserts, risking our lives to get here, why not give up a day of work for something that can help us all?

Mixed reactions from merchants

JEFFREY KAYE: Many merchants in Latino immigrant communities also joined the boycott by shuttering their businesses, but not all merchants embraced the boycott idea enthusiastically. Fred Adibi, who's an immigrant from Iran, said last week he was afraid that if he kept his appliance store open, it would anger his Latino customers and neighbors.

FRED ADIBI, Store Owner: I am making money out of them. They're spending money, so I'm supporting them.

JEFFREY KAYE: Even within the immigrant rights' community, the boycott has had its skeptics and critics. Some activists feared immigrants might be fired if they participated in a boycott.

ANGELICA SALAS, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles: If they feel that their job is in danger, we feel that they don't need to risk their job on this day.

JEFFREY KAYE: Angelica Salas supports the cause but not the boycott, so the organization she directs, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, helped plan an alternative to this boycott march: a separate, late-afternoon demonstration for after school and after work.

ANGELICA SALAS: When you're actually threatening somebody's daily bread, when you're actually threatening somebody's wages, you better be serious about why you're calling that action, that boycott.

JEFFREY KAYE: To accommodate protestors, officials closed streets in downtown Los Angeles and the federal courts shut down for the afternoon in anticipation of expected traffic snarls. Demonstrations that began midday in Los Angeles rolled into the evening, as they did throughout Southern California.

Immigrants rally in Chicago

RICH SAMUELS, WTTW-Chicago Correspondent: It was demonstrators as far as the eye could see at the staging area for Chicago's march. Chicago was where the idea for a nationwide demonstration originated.

GROUP OF PROTESTERS: Legalizacion! Legalizacion!

RICH SAMUELS: It was the brainchild of Jose Artemio Arreola, a service workers union official.

JOSE ARTEMIO ARREOLA, Service Workers International: We need it. We need it, immigration reform.

RICH SAMUELS: He proposed a rally that was held here in March. Latino radio personalities, like Javier Salas, provided publicity that led to a turnout of at least 100,000 then. Today, he had to overcome what he claimed was a negative image projected by some sectors of the Anglo-media.

JAVIER SALAS, Univision Radio: We're not burning flags; we're not singing anthems in bilingual; we're not offending this country. What we all want is to share the American dream, as cliche as it sounds. We just want to have the opportunity to provide for our families.

RICH SAMUELS: Between 300,000 and 500,000 marchers turned out here today. Organized labor had a considerable presence here. Tony Avalos, a Teamster organizer, believes managers agree with workers on the immigration issue.

TONY AVALOS, Teamsters Hispanic Caucus: They're very supportive, because they're not afraid of the walkout or not being here. They want us to come back to work; they want us to be legal; they want to give us the things that everybody else has.

RICH SAMUELS: Joining the Chicago marchers today, with some misgivings, was Carmen Velasquez. She's a health care professional. Many of her clients are immigrants without documentation.

CARMEN VELASQUEZ, Health Care Professional: You have to have the courage to call attention to your issue. Whether it's the best way to do it, I'm not quite sure, but I do know this, that unless we do something that demonstrates to the entire country that this is still America, that we have the right to voice our concern, and our issues, and bring it out in the open, and we are not afraid to talk about this issue.

And this country has to stop being afraid to talk about it, only because we have come out and said: Deal with us. We're not going away. You cannot erase us from the blackboard.

RICH SAMUELS: Among the elected officials addressing the marchers was U.S. Senator Barack Obama.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: You know, I am proud of the fact that a national movement began in Chicago, because Chicago has always been ahead of the curve. And what started out as march borne of fear, fear of a House bill that would criminalize and create felons out of hardworking families who are simply trying to raise their children as best they can, has now become a movement of hope.

RICH SAMUELS: But not all Chicago's African-Americans agreed with Senator Obama today. Talk show host Cliff Kelly fielded a call this morning he says was not unique.

CALLER: But they're here illegally.

CLIFF KELLY, WVON Radio: Uh-huh.

CALLER: And if they broke the law, then they should be sent back, as many as can.

RICH SAMUELS: Talk show host Kelly says jobs are the issue for this and other like-minded callers.

CLIFF KELLY: He mentioned the fact of how many African-Americans are out of work. That's what's behind it: sheer economics. People need jobs, you know, not withstanding all this we hear about.

Oh, the economy, this, that and the other. That's a bunch of crap. As I say, drive through my community and you see all these people on the street at noon. They are looking for work.

RICH SAMUELS: While Chicago's was by far the largest pro-immigration rally in Illinois, a handful of other demonstrations were held throughout the state.

Mostly business as usual in D.C.

KWAME HOLMAN: It looked like business as usual in the nation's capital today. There were taxi cabs a-plenty. The clang from construction sites echoed through the streets. And daily life for most went undisturbed, as many immigrants showed up for their jobs or gave advance warning they'd be gone.

In some of Washington's Latino neighborhoods, such as Mount Pleasant, several businesses were closed in observance of the boycott. But feelings remained mixed, especially in Carlos West's apparel store, which he kept open.

CARLOS WEST, Store Owner: I'm a supporter. I support. But, then again, everyone's got to pay rent. You know, everyone's got to pay the bills, you know?

PROTEST SUPPORTER: But one day we have to be together, to work together. But let they know what we are the strong in this country and we pay taxes, like them, like everybody else.

KWAME HOLMAN: A few blocks away, a popular Mexican restaurant did its usual Monday lunchtime business. Many of Lauriol Plaza's 300 seats were filled.

Co-owners Luis Reyes and Raul Sanchez talked to their employees last week and decided shutting down today wasn't the best way to support immigrants' rights.

LUIS REYES, Restaurant Owner: I don't think we'll get attention with the boycott; I think we'll look bad for us.

KWAME HOLMAN: The owners, as well as most of the staff, were born outside the U.S.

RAUL SANCHEZ, Restaurant Owner: Everybody knows immigrants are useful and is needed here. We've been needed. And to tell everybody, "Don't go to work," it's not going to help. You are going to disrupt the economy to show what? What are you going to show?

KWAME HOLMAN: Another usually bustling lunch time spot, Chef Geoff's, also kept its doors open for most of the day.

GEOFF TRACY, Restaurant Owner: This country is founded on immigration.

KWAME HOLMAN: That was a collective decision, according to owner Geoff Tracy, who convinced his team that closing would hurt everyone.

GEOFF TRACY: We're a profit-sharing company. At the end of the year, I give back a large percentage of the profits to all my employees; they all know that. And so we talked about that $30,000 worth of revenue that just disappears, you know, that's just gone. It's essentially profit that's just gone.

And, you know, they kind of balanced that out. And they said, well, maybe that's not a good thing for the restaurant.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tracy acknowledged his restaurant business depends heavily on an immigrant workforce, and he's not alone. About 45 percent of Washington, D.C.-area food service workers are immigrants; not all illegal, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

GEOFF TRACY: There's a lot of labor involved, and a lot of that comes from the Latino community. And if they all get together and say, "Hey, you know, we're not going to work today," well, if the produce doesn't arrive, there won't be many Caesar salads that day.

KWAME HOLMAN: Around the corner, the management of Finemondo closed the restaurant in solidarity with its employees, most of whom are immigrants. Manager David Burkhardt said that meant a hit to the bottom line.

JOURNALIST: How much money do you stand to lose closing down on Monday?

DAVID BURKHARDT, Restaurant Manager: Anywhere between $5,000 to $12,000.

KWAME HOLMAN: But next door, the High Noon Deli struggled to deal with the lunchtime crowd when half its workers chose to boycott. Manager Stella Dumka expected that and planned ahead.

STELLA DUMKA, Restaurant Manager: We're going to be very frazzled all day. And we're going to just jeep going and do the best we can, and that's all you can do.

KWAME HOLMAN: Many immigrants and their supporters who chose not to work came together this afternoon for a rally in the city's most prominent Latino neighborhood. That wasn't a concern for Roxana Rivas; owners of the nearby store where she works chose to close for the day.

ROXANA RIVAS, Protest Supporter (through translator): Where I work is a Hispanic business, and all my bosses support us. They know we are dignified people, and they understand we need to one day legalize and get papers.

KWAME HOLMAN: Though much smaller than last month's pro-immigration rally on the National Mall, today's action in Washington pleased organizers. They said the so-called "sleeping giant" of immigrants has been awakened and promised to continue the push for legal status for America's millions of undocumented people.