LOS ANGELES—More than 1 million mostly Hispanic immigrants and their supporters skipped work and took to the streets Monday, flexing their economic muscle in a nationwide boycott that succeeded in slowing or shutting many farms, factories, markets and restaurants.
From Los Angeles to Chicago, Houston to Miami, the “Day Without Immigrants” attracted widespread participation despite divisions among activists over whether a boycott would send the right message to Washington lawmakers considering sweeping immigration reform.
“We are the backbone of what America is, legal or illegal, it doesn’t matter,” said Melanie Lugo, who with her husband and their third-grade daughter joined a rally of some 75,000 in Denver. “We butter each other’s bread. They need us as much as we need them.”
Two major rallies in Los Angeles attracted an estimated 400,000, according to the mayor’s office. Police in Chicago estimated 400,000 people marched through the downtown business district.
Tens of thousands more marched in New York, along with about 15,000 in Houston, 50,000 in San Jose and 30,000 more across Florida. Smaller rallies in cities from Pennsylvania and Connecticut to Arizona and South Dakota attracted hundreds not thousands.
In all, police departments in more than two dozen U.S. cities contacted by The Associated Press gave crowd estimates that totaled about 1.1 million marchers.
While most demonstrations were peaceful, a Santa Ana rally of 5,000 in Orange County was marred by people hurling rocks and plastic bottles at officers. Police made several arrests, but it was unclear if they were protesters. And a march in Seattle was disrupted when a car struck a group of marchers, though injuries were minor.
The White House reacted coolly.
“The president is not a fan of boycotts,” said press secretary Scott McClellan. “People have the right to peacefully express their views, but the president wants to see comprehensive reform pass the Congress so that he can sign it into law.”
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.
Some of the rallies drew small numbers of counter-protesters, including one in Pensacola, Fla.
“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.”
The normally bustling downtown Los Angeles produce and garment districts were virtually shut down today, and truck traffic at the ports was down sharply after many employees protesting the nation’s immigration policy’s did not show up for work.
The dearth of activity in the produce and garment districts, both heavily dependent on immigrant labor, was so far the most dramatic sign of the impact of today’s organized immigration protests on local commerce. Only sporadic business closures and staffing shortages reported across the remainder of Southern California.
The Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market—which provides fresh food to restaurants, grocery store chains and countless mom and pop outlets—was unusually quiet at 2:30 am when the sprawling complex is normally a din of shouting workers and rumbling trucks The nearby 7th Street Market, the region’s second-largest wholesale food market, never even bothered to open.
“This is not a normal day,” said Robert Barrios as he viewed the sedate concrete loading docks at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. “This time of the day, you usually have trucks pulling in, pulling out. People yelling, “Hey, let’s go! Get out of the way!”
A few hours later, visitors to the nearby downtown garment district were greeted by block after block of shuttered storefronts and garment factories. Many businesses had decided to close after workers informed them of their plans not to show up today, according to business owners.
Pelicana Fashion on Maple Street was one of the few businesses that tried to open today but manager Sueli Shin decided to close up shop before 11 am.
“Only one of my six workers showed up,” Shin said as she was preparing to close the shop.
In the San Fernando Valley, it was a shortage of shoppers and not necessarily workers that prompted 11 businesses to close at the Panorama Mall by late morning.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” said Edward Ourishian, who was planning to close his shop, Prime Time, a watch and jewelry stand, by noon. “There is nobody here. Usually it’s crowded here. Ninety-five percent of the shoppers are Hispanic. But, look, now you see only white faces.”