Thousands of Immigrants in US Participate in Boycott, Rallies

Amid heated debate over illegal immigration in the United States, millions of immigrants cut short their workday or stayed home in hopes of demonstrating their collective impact on the U.S. economy. In Washington, many planned to take part in rallies and marches to highlight their opposition to a proposal before Congress that would classify undocumented workers as felons and extend a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigrant rights groups dubbed the one-day work stoppage "A Day Without Immigrants." The goal was to show the U.S economy cannot function without immigrants, legal or otherwise.

Several large businesses announced a shutdown of operations in advance of the work stoppage, from wineries in California to food processing companies in the U.S. Midwest.

In Washington's Adams Morgan neighborhood, home to a large Hispanic population, Roberto Reyes sat on a park bench with a friend. A gardener by trade, he would normally be pulling weeds or trimming bushes at this hour. But Reyes, who came to the United States from El Salvador eight years ago, felt compelled to take the day off.

He says, "I am fulfilling my responsibility, and I will take part in a march to the Capitol. We need the government to come out in support of immigrants. I would hope the government would extend its hand to us, as it has in the past."

Restaurant waiter Enrique Gomez, also from El Salvador, says some people in his community are forgoing a day of work, but he and many others are fearful of losing their jobs if they stay at home.

Gomez shrugs when asked if he thinks immigrant-led protests will sway U.S. public opinion and have a political impact.

He says, "It all depends on the president [Bush]. He is the one in power, and he will decide whether or not to help the immigrant population."

Overall adherence to the one-day economic boycott appeared spotty in many locations. Some Hispanic leaders urged immigrants to go to work as usual, but to take part in marches and demonstrations later in the day.

A manager of a janitorial service, who identified himself as "Charles," says none of his workers were absent Monday.

"We are fortunate enough to have good employees," he said. "Everybody is more worried right now about providing for their families [rather than protesting]."

"A Day Without Immigrants" is the latest in a series of high profile demonstrations undertaken by immigrants and immigrants rights groups in the United States in recent months. Those wanting to crack down on illegal immigration have held rallies of their own.

Howard Davis, who is visiting Washington from southeast Texas, says he thinks the political tactics of immigrants will backfire, alienating rather than swaying most native-born U.S. voters.

"It [immigrant protest] is negative as far as I am concerned," he said. "They [illegal immigrants] should not be here in the first place. They should be able to come here legally, through the legal process. Otherwise, why have a border? Why even call it a border?"

Polls show Americans deeply divided on the immigration issue, and Congress has yet to reach a consensus on what should become of the 11-12 million illegal aliens living in the United States. President Bush has proposed strengthening border security and establishing a guest worker program but says that deporting millions of illegal immigrants would be impractical and unjust.