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Immigrants Take to Streets In Rallies Across the Nation

By Randal C. Archibold


Hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters on Monday skipped work, school and shopping and marched on dozens of cities from coast to coast. The demonstrations did not bring the nation to a halt as planned by some organizers, but they signaled the continuing resolve of those who favor loosening the country’s laws on illegal immigration.

Originally billed as a nationwide economic boycott under the banner “Day Without an Immigrant,” the day evolved into a sweeping round of protests intended to influence the debate in Congress over proposals that would grant legal status to all or most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

The protesters, a mix of illegal immigrants and legal residents and citizens, were mostly Latino, but in contrast to similar demonstrations in the past two months, large numbers of people of other ethnicities joined or endorsed many of the events. In some cases, the rallies took on a broader tone of social action, as gay rights advocates, opponents of the war in Iraq and others without a direct stake in the immigration debate took to the streets.

“I think it’s only fair that I speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves,” said Aimee Hernandez, 28, one of an estimated 400,000 who turned out in Chicago, among the largest demonstrations. “I think we’re just too many that you can’t just send them back. How are you going to ignore these people?”

But among those who favor stricter controls on illegal immigration, the protests hardly impressed.

“If anything it will free up traffic on the freeway and give kids a free day off of schools and others a free day off from work,” Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the Minutemen, a volunteer group that patrols the U.S.-Mexico border, said in an interview.

“But when the rule of law is dictated by a mob of illegal aliens taking to the streets, especially under a foreign flag, then that means the nation is not governed by a rule of law. It is a mobacracy,” Gilchrist said.

While the boycott, an idea born a couple of months ago among a small group of grass-roots immigration advocates here in Los Angeles, may not have shut down the country, it was strongly felt in a variety of places, particularly those with large Latino populations.

Stores and restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York closed because workers did not show up or as a display of solidarity with demonstrators. School districts in several cities reported a decline in attendance — at Benito Juarez High School in Pilsen, a predominantly Latino community in Chicago, only 17 percent of the students showed up — even though administrators and some protest organizers urged students to stay in school.

Lettuce, tomatoes and grapes went unpicked in fields in California and Arizona, which contributes more than half of the nation’s produce, as scores of growers let workers take the day off. Truckers that move 70 percent of the goods in ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s busiest, did not work.

Meatpacking companies, including Tyson and Cargill, closed plants in the Midwest and West, employing more than 20,000 people, while the sprawling flower and produce markets in downtown Los Angeles stood largely and eerily empty.