Millions mark America's 'day without immigrants'

Andrew Gumbel
Tuesday 02 May 2006 00:00

The surging movement for immigrants' rights across the United States reached new heights as millions of foreign-born workers walked off their jobs, withheld all but the most necessary consumer purchases and joined noisy, peaceful May Day protest marches in more than 50 cities.

The "day without immigrants" showed every sign of being the biggest protest to date, with hundreds of thousands of people turning out for marches yesterday. In Los Angeles, the focal point of the battle for greater workplace protection and legal recognition for an estimated 12 million undocumented workers across the country, more than 100,000 people wearing white T-shirts and brandishing flags and banners took part in a morning protest outside City Hall.

A much bigger number was expected to march through the heart of the city in the afternoon and evening ­ very possibly more than the half million people who swelled the downtown streets at a watershed demonstration in late March.

Across southern California, middle and high school students either failed to show up at school or else snuck away as soon as they were dropped by their parents. Truancy rates were reported as high as 27 per cent in some schools. Police and civic authorities arranged an ambitious programme of street closures on a scale reminiscent of an Olympic Games or presidential funeral.

Nannies and gardeners informed their wealthy employers that they would not be showing up. Several big businesses, including slaughter houses in the Great Plains and numerous branches of McDonald's, either rearranged working shifts or decided to close for the day in recognition of the fact that their workforces would be severely depleted. The Los Angeles fruit and vegetable market came to a standstill, as did the garment industry and at least some of the operations at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

"No human being is illegal," read one banner at the LA demonstration. "Today we march, tomorrow we vote," read another. Both were written in English and Spanish. Music blaring through the street included Mexican mariachi tunes and Neil Diamond's "America". The atmosphere was overwhelmingly joyous, with little or no tension with police.

"There's no question in my mind that we are in the midst of an historic, new social movement," commented Marc Cooper, a border and immigration specialist with the University of Southern California's Institute for Justice and Journalism. "It's taken decades to build and reach critical mass and it is still going to take years to mature and fully pay off. So far, the cool-headed long-term strategists have dominated."

For now, the street protesters have made almost all of the political running. Opinion polls have shown a sea change in public attitudes to immigration reform in recent weeks, as an emphasis on securing the border and rounding up "illegals" has given way to an acknowledgement that all workers in the economy deserve basic respect and dignity. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from last week showed 68 per cent of respondents supporting a Senate bill that would allow illegal immigrants to join a guest worker programme en route to full citizenship.

Not everyone, however, has shown equal enthusiasm for yesterday's economic boycott and work stoppage. Many supporters of progressive immigration reform have expressed the fear that a boycott could squander much of the goodwill built up in recent weeks.

School administrators have pointed out that for every child who plays truant, they will lose money from their state coffers ­ thus doing direct damage to institutions in the forefront of improving the lives of immigrants and their children.

Los Angeles' Mexican American mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, hesitated long and hard before deciding to postpone a planned trip to Texas to negotiate the possible purchase of an American football team of his city. Instead, he monitored the marches from City Hall and from a helicopter, and planned to address the evening rally in person.

On the eve of the protest, he made a vain plea to students to stay in school and join the marches afterwards. But he also urged his fellow Angelenos to show understanding for any disruptions their daily schedules might suffer. "Democracy is not always convenient, and it's unavoidable that Angelenos will be inconvenienced by these protests," he said.

Most of the country's political leadership appeared too cowed by the scale of the protest to offer much opinion one way or the other. It has been a remarkable shift since last December, when the Republican radicals in the House of Representatives passed a draconian bill that would have made felons of all illegal immigrants and given the go-ahead of a 700- mile military fence across much of the US-Mexican border.

The Senate is now making its second attempt to draft much more liberal legislation to create a guest worker programme and end the cat-and-mouse border crossings that claim hundreds of lives each year.

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