Immigrants Walk Off Jobs in Boycott

Gillian Flaccus, AP, May 1, 2005

LOS ANGELES—Hundreds of thousands of mostly Hispanic immigrants skipped work and took to the streets Monday, flexing their newfound political muscle in a nationwide boycott that succeeded in slowing or shutting many farms, factories, markets and restaurants.

From Los Angeles to Chicago, New Orleans to Houston, 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.

“I want my children to know their mother is not a criminal,” said Benita Olmedo, a nanny who came here illegally in 1986 from Mexico and pulled her 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son from school to march in San Diego. “I want them to be as strong I am. This shows our strength.”

Police estimated 300,000 people marched through Chicago’s business district, and hundreds of thousands more were expected at rallies in New York and Los Angeles. Smaller rallies were planned in more than 50 other cities across the nation.

In heavily Hispanic Perth Amboy, N.J., a normally bustling business district was quiet and still. Block after block of record shops, cafes and produce stores were shuttered on the usually traffic-choked street.

In the Los Angeles area, normally bustling restaurants and markets were dark and truckers avoided the nation’s largest shipping port. About one in three small businesses was closed downtown, including the cluttered produce market and fashion district.

Industries that rely on immigrant workers were clearly affected, though the impact was not uniform.

Tyson Foods Inc., the world’s largest meat producer, shuttered about a dozen of its more than 100 plants and saw “higher-than-usual absenteeism” at others. Most of the closures were in states such as Iowa and Nebraska. Eight of 14 Perdue Farms chicken plants also closed for the day.

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None of the 175 seasonal laborers who normally work Mike Collins’ 500 acres of Vidalia onion fields in southeastern Georgia showed up Monday.

“We need to be going wide open this time of year to get these onions out of the field,” he said. “We’ve got orders to fill. Losing a day in this part of the season causes a tremendous amount of problems.”

It was the same story in Indiana, where the owner of a landscaping business said he was at a loss. About 25 Hispanic workers—90 percent of the field work force—never reported Monday to Salsbery Brothers Landscaping.

“We’re basically shut down in our busiest month of the year,” said owner Jeff Salsbery. “It’s going to cost me thousands of dollars.”

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