The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Immigrants Demonstrate Power through Strike, Boycott, Protests

by NewStandard Correspondents
Kari Lydersen in Chicago
Jessica Hoffmann in Los Angeles
Michelle Chen in New York
and Jessica Azulay contributed to this piece.

NewStandard reporters hit the streets among hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters in three cities to present a ground-level view of the massive show of presence and passion.

*A correction was appended to this news article after initial publication.

Chicago / Los Angeles / New York; May 2, 2006 – More than a million immigrants and allies took to the streets in cities across America yesterday in the latest of escalating demonstrations for recognition. The outpouring was an expression of immigrants’ power and importance to the US economy as many skipped work to attend mass rallies and marches and refrained from spending money.

Toolbox
Email to a Friend
Print-friendly Version
Add to My Morning Paper

Protesters made their biggest showings in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, but smaller events – in some cases tens of thousands strong – took place in dozens of cities nationwide.

In Chicago, where even the police estimated that at least 400,000 marchers turned out in the streets, participants demanded legalization and workers’ rights for immigrants. In the morning, feeder marches from various parts of the city converged in Union Park, near the headquarters of many labor unions. The crowd erupted into chants of "Sí se puede" (Yes we can) and "El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido" (The people united will never be defeated).

The official theme of the march, as hashed out by the coalition organizers and union leaders, was that immigrants’ rights and workers’ rights are one and the same. Participants cheered this message delivered by speakers, but more spontaneously chanted for justice and human rights in general.

Though the organizing coalition did not call for a boycott or strike, many businesses were closed in Latino neighborhoods throughout the city in support of the march. Chicago schools allowed students to attend with a note from a guardian, and many teachers took personal days for the march.

“Right now we are one, Polish and Mexican and everyone else.”

Magdalena Palomina, a 40-year-old second-grade teacher, heard about preparations for May Day marches and boycotts in the US while she was visiting family in her hometown in Michoacan, Mexico last month.

"It was on the news there on every station, everyone knew about it," she said. "People complain about immigrants here sending money to Mexico, but so many American-made products are bought there. McDonalds, Burger King, Sam’s, CostCo, Wal-Mart – we have it all."

"Miguel," a "40-something" immigrant from Queretaro, Mexico who didn’t want his real name used, called in sick to work at the University of Illinois in order to don a velvety, glittered sombrero and attend the protest. "I wanted to be part of this," said Miguel, who has been in the United States for 25 years. "I was in their shoes, I know what it’s like to be undocumented, to be in the shadows. You want to feel free and be able to work and express your feelings, but you are exploited all the time."

Estela Waller, 24, who came from Morelos, Mexico when she was 7, asked for a day off from her job at an insurance firm to attend the march. She pointed to her Chinese-made American flag as a symbol of the global economy, and said people should have the same rights as products to cross borders. "This affects everyone," she said. "We love this country. We’ve worked for this country. We just want to be a part of it."

“People say, ‘What am I gonna do? I’m just one person.’ This doesn’t look like one person, does it?”

Most marchers in Chicago told The NewStandard it was the first protest they had attended, and most felt confident their presence would help send a message to lawmakers and the general public.

"This is making history, homes," said one teenage boy with spiked hair after his friend lifted him up on his shoulders for a better view of the crowd.

German Aguirre, a jeweler from Ecuador who has been stateside for 19 years, was more skeptical. "God only knows" if the demonstrations will have any effect, he said. "I guess we’ll have to see."

One man wore an American flag as a cloak; next to him stood another man draped in a Mexican flag and another in a Polish flag.

"Right now we are one, Polish and Mexican and everyone else," said Polish immigrant Piotr Bielinski, 23, who has been in Chicago for two years working as an electrician.

Along with signs mass produced by immigrant-rights and progressive groups, there were many hand-scrawled, homemade placards bearing slogans like: "You need our work, we need our legalization" or "My family built your country with their blood, sweat and tears" or simply "Stop the raids now."

Nationwide

Tens of thousands more marched in cities across the country, including major events in San Francisco, Phoenix, Atlanta and Denver. Students walked out of public schools, often by the thousands, throughout various districts in small and medium cities like Minneapolis; El Paso; Indianapolis; White Plains, New York and cities across Florida.

The meatpacking industry was also affected. Tyson Foods spokesperson Gary Mickelson told TNS that twelve beef- and-pork packing plants out of the company’s 100 facilities were closed yesterday and that others experienced "higher than usual absenteeism." He said that in anticipation of the worker strikes, the company – which host a one-third Hispanic workforce – shifted production to Saturday, but that he did not know what the economic impact of the protests would be.

“For us to gain more power, it’s gonna be long-term. Americans are afraid; I don’t know what’s in their minds.”

Similarly Perdue, which employs about the same proportion of Spanish-speaking workers as Tyson, shut down eight out of fourteen poultry-packing plants, according to spokesperson Julie DeYoung.

Reuters reported that about half of Florida’s immigrant farmworkers did not show up to work the fields, according to the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. Dulles Airport spokeswoman Tara Hamilton told the Washington Post that fewer than half of the 1,147 construction workers employed there showed up.

Only about half the 1,600 wage workers at a large vegetable operation in Salinas, California, reported to work. Those who stayed away did so with the blessing of company president Ken Silveira, who told USA Today, "We sat down with everybody and talked to them and supported them in what they wanted to do."

Los Angeles

In California yesterday morning, truck drivers and line haulers from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach – together composing the busiest seaport in the United States and the eighth busiest port in the world – did not go to work. Members said they were striking in support of immigration-law reform and to pressure their employers for a new contract that addresses rising fuel costs and recognizes them as employees instead of independent contractors.

Theresa Adams Lopez, director of media relations for the Port of Los Angeles, told TNS that there are typically approximately 30,000 truck trips per day at the ports of LA and Long Beach. But with so many drivers out, less than a third of the port was operating at normal capacity. She was unable to quantify the economic impact of the strike, though she noted that when the ports were shut down completely in 2004, the loss to the port alone was about "one million dollars per day."

Mike Zampa of APL, a company Lopez said was the Port’s second-largest tenant, came down to Los Angeles from his company’s Bay Area headquarters specifically because of the port workers’ strike. He said the company was making full use of "complemental labor," but that movement was slowed: they were seeing an average of 40 moves through the gate by truckers per hour, as opposed to an average of 175 per hour last week.

The Mexican American Grocers Association, which represents numerous grocery stores in LA, was closed for the day "out of respect for our Latino consumers and the businesses that serve them," according to the outgoing message on the organization’s voicemail. Several member stores were also closed.

And all along 7th Street, on the south side of the park where one of the day’s largest demonstrations began, restaurants, groceries and discount stores were closed.

Susan Cox, of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Office of Communications, reported that 27 percent of 6th to 12th graders were absent on Monday – compared to 10 percent this time last year. In particular, she noted especially large numbers of absences at majority-Latino schools: at Belmont High School there were 700 absences; at Bell High School, she reported, approximately 1,000 students walked out just before noon; at Huntington Park High School, 1,195 students skipped school.

At noon, more than 250,000 people, according to official estimates, gathered in downtown Los Angeles for a rally and march that ended in front of City Hall. The demonstration was organized by the March 25 Movement, named for the date of a very large pro-immigrant-rights demonstration five weeks ago, and actively endorsed a full work and school boycott.

The crowd, which was overwhelmingly Latino, waved signs with slogans like "Amnistía general" (General amnesty), "Who’s the immigrant, pilgrim?" and "If you’re wondering what I’m doing here, learn the real history: I’m in my homeland." Groups chanted "Bush, escucha, estamos en la lucha" (Bush, listen, we’re in the struggle) and "Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos" (Today we march, tomorrow we vote).

"I love it – action speaks louder than words," Ana Lebron, a 25-year-old Salvadoran telephone operator, said as she marched. "It concerns me that this nation was built by immigrants and now they’re trying to say we don’t have any rights… It wasn’t by choice that I came here – my country was in a war and my mother had to [seek refuge]."

US-born Francisco Guerra, a 19-year-old student at LA Harbor College whose parents are from Guatemala, told TNS: "People say, ‘What am I gonna do? I’m just one person.’" Guerra looked around at the crowds marching alongside him and noted, "This doesn’t look like one person, does it?"

At Broadway and 1st, the intersection was packed, with crowds wearing white T-shirts, waving flags and filling the streets for blocks around. Maria Hurtado, a 50-year-old mom, said she had worked in factories in Mexico and the United States and struggled with her field-hand father alongside Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. "I strike for myself today," Hurtado said. "In this time there is no respect for the workers. The government closes their eyes about what happens in the factories, the jobs – they’re not doing nothing… A lot of companies made a lot of money off my people."

A larger march, later in the day, from MacArthur Park in the Westlake District to Wilshire and La Brea in the Miracle Mile area, was organized by the Somos America (We Are America) coalition, which did not endorse a boycott or strike. Many organizations and individuals attended both events.

Throughout the afternoon, marchers by the hundreds of thousands left the park and headed down Wilshire Boulevard for La Brea Avenue, about 4.5 miles away. People packed the sidewalks to watch and cheer them on.

Marchers included contingents from the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, Service Employees unions, the Garment Worker Center, Korean Immigrant Workers Association, Pilipino Worker Center, and the Los Angeles Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights.

"I don’t think it’s right that immigrants should be criminals," said Ana Alfaro, 14. "They haven’t done anything except work for this country." Alfaro came to the US from El Salvador when she was 9 years old.

Leaning against a tree in MacArthur Park, Oscar Lopez, a 29-year-old construction worker from El Salvador, told TNS that he participated in the work boycott. In an interview in Spanish, he said he wants to get a driver’s license and be able to travel back to his home country to visit his four children, who he hasn’t seen in three years.

As the march moved through the Koreatown neighborhood, Maria Vasquez, 46, who was demonstrating with her 12-year-old daughter, said she had been petitioning for a visa for thirteen years. "Some of us have been waiting so long, and there’s nothing we can do about it," she said. "For us to gain more power, it’s gonna be long-term. Americans are afraid; I don’t know what’s in their minds."

Cristina Garcia, 33, who was demonstrating with her family, said many people were unable to attend yesterday – people whose work in their homes, hospitals and other such places could not be abandoned. "Those who could come," she said in Spanish, "give voice to those who could not."

Pedro Williams, a 23-year-old student whose parents immigrated from Belize, said: "I’m out here for my parents and the people before me who had to go through the struggle to become legal. There has to be a better way to do this."

New York

Three thousand miles away in Manhattan, protests began with a symbolic "human chain" formed by immigrants and other activists at designated points throughout the city, coordinated by a coalition of labor unions and advocacy groups.

On Canal Street, the chain stretched for about two blocks, as workers and protesters lined up in solidarity carrying signs that declared "We are America."

Liang Bin, a naturalized citizen who arrived eight years ago from Fujian Province in China, came to protest the widely criticized House of Representatives immigration bill that would criminalize undocumented immigration. "America is a country of immigrants," she said. "If people are here, let them obtain legal status, let them prosper here."

But she said that among new Chinese immigrants, "a lot of them don’t even really know about HR 4437," so she took care to explain to curious onlookers on the crowded Chinatown streets what she and her fellow demonstrators were protesting and why.

One group of workers from a local garment factory came down in clusters for the 15-minute event, with the support of their employer, who also attended.

Later in the day, tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on Manhattan’s Union Square from various points in the city, and the burgeoning crowd radiated onto the adjacent streets. Then they marched to Foley Square by City Hall in Lower Manhattan

"We want to be legal. To get our rights, to be equal like the other citizens," said Concepción Perez, a 29-year-old woman from Puebla, Mexico who works in a clothing factory. She took the day off work to attend with her family. "We want our benefits," she said. "We want to be able to work and don’t be scared of immigration [authorities]."

Perez, who marched to Union Square with a contingent from Chinatown, said she has been in the country since 1989, and she and her husband’s effort to gain legal status is still stalled in the tedious application process. She is anxious for the opportunity to live here legally, she said, because she is not only supporting a family here, but also sending money back to her mother and grandfather in Puebla. "A lot of immigrants – they’re making a big, big contribution to those countries," she said.

A few of the Chinese workers in the crowd were drawn to the march spontaneously. "I saw everything was very lively here.… So I just decided to join in," said Chen Ya Guan, a cook at a Chinese restaurant visiting from Virginia. Marching with hundreds of others amid chants of "What do we want? Equality!" in Chinese, Chen said that his undocumented status has kept him separated from his family since he was smuggled into the country from China’s Fujian Province in 1992. Eager to somehow obtain legal status, he said, "As long as I have a little hope, I’ll keep waiting."

Frank Segarra, 55, born in Puerto Rico but a lifelong New York resident, said that even though he is not technically an immigrant due to his homeland’s commonwealth ties to the United States, he came in solidarity with those who have come to America in pursuit of economic opportunity. "Yes, we’re getting paid lower wages and all that," he said. "We’re getting kicked in the ass, yes." He gestured toward the crowd. "But through this," he continued, "we could change all that. That’s the purpose for this."

At the north end of Union Square, 19-year-old Eliseo Tehocol, together with classmates from La Guardia Community College, led a small rally in support of the DREAM Act. Now under consideration in Congress, that legislation would make it easier for undocumented immigrant students to become legal residents.

Originally from Mexico City, he said he hopes to become a teacher after college, but is currently faced with the barriers to green-card status. "If I graduate from college, I’m not going to be able to get a job until I get a social security number," he said.

"Gong Ping! Xian Zai!" chanted a Latino man, having learned the Chinese version of "What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Now!"

"Everybody go for the same thing," he said, beaming beneath a large, green and white multi-lingual banner. "We gotta get together."

CORRECTION

Clarifying Note:

The words "with a note from a guardian" were added to the sentence, "Chicago schools allowed students to attend with a note from a guardian, and many teachers took personal days for the march" in order to make it clear under what circumstances students were allowed to leave school for the march.  

 | Change Posted May 2, 2006 at 18:00 PM EST

Send to Friends Respond to Editors or Reporter

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


This News Article originally appeared in the May 2, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Recent contributions by NewStandard Correspondents:
more