LOS ANGELES – Far from the boisterous streets where hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants and their supporters marched Monday, many of the restaurants, factories and construction sites they boycotted stood silent.
Kitchens that normally serve food were empty. Meat-processing plants came to a halt. Fields were barren of workers. Truckers avoided the nation’s largest shipping port, and tens of thousands of students skipped school.
Despite divisions over whether the “Day Without Immigrants” sent the right message to lawmakers mulling reforms to federal law, the impact of the economic boycott was evident, though hardly uniform, at workplaces nationwide.
“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 an estimated 75,000 rallying in Denver. “We butter each other’s bread. They need us as much as we need them.”
The mood was jubilant in Los Angeles, where hundreds of thousands of protesters wearing white and waving U.S. flags sang the national anthem in English as traditional Mexican dancers wove through the crowd. The mayor’s office estimated 250,000 people attended the lunchtime rally, the first of two major protests scheduled for the day.
In Chicago, where an estimated 400,000 people protested, illegal immigrants from Ireland and Poland marched alongside Hispanics as office workers on lunch breaks clapped. In Phoenix, protesters formed a human chain in front of Wal-Mart and Home Depot stores.
Protesters in Tijuana, Mexico, blocked vehicle traffic heading to San Diego at the world’s busiest border crossing.
Tens of thousands rallied in New York, 15,000 in Houston and 30,000 more across Florida. Smaller rallies in cities from Pennsylvania and Connecticut to Arizona and South Dakota attracted hundreds not thousands.
Many carried signs in Spanish that translated to “We are America” and “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.” Others waved Mexican flags or wore hats and scarves from their native countries. Some chanted “USA” while others shouted slogans such as “Si se puede!” – Spanish for “Yes, it can be done!” Others were more irreverent, wearing T-shirts that read “I’m illegal. So what?”
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.
Secaucus, N.J.-based Goya Foods, which says it is the nation’s largest Hispanic-owned food chain, suspended delivery everywhere except Florida, keeping 300 trucks off the road and leaving more than 5 million products in warehouses an extra day. A spokeswoman said the company wanted to express solidarity with immigrants who are its primary customers.
None of the 175 seasonal laborers who normally work Mike Collins’ 500 acres of Vidalia onion fields in southeastern Georgia showed up.
“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.”
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 boycott was organized by immigrant activists angered by federal legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants and fortify the U.S-Mexico border. Its goal was to raise awareness about immigrants’ economic power.
In the Los Angeles area, normally bustling local restaurants and markets were dark. In Florida, as elsewhere, the construction and nursery industries were among the hardest hit.
Bill Spann, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Florida, said more than half the workers at construction sites in Miami-Dade County did not show up Monday.
“If I lose my job, it’s worth it,” said Jose Cruz, an immigrant from El Salvador who protested with several thousand others in the rural Florida city of Homestead rather than work his construction job. “It’s worth losing several jobs to get my papers.”
The impact on schools 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.
In San Francisco, Benita Olmedo pulled her 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son from school.
“I want my children to know their mother is not a criminal,” said Olmedo, a nanny who came here illegally in 1986 from Mexico. “I want them to be as strong I am. This shows our strength.”
In the normally bustling Port of Long Beach, about 30 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, was eerily quiet, with many truck drivers avoiding work. Lunch truck operator Sammy Rodriguez, 77, said 100 trucks normally line up in the mornings outside the California United Terminals. On Monday, he said, just three or four arrived.
The effect of the boycott was minimal in some places. On Manhattan’s busy 14th Street, only a few shops were closed, including a Spanish-language bookstore and a tiny Latin American restaurant.
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.”
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Laura Wides-Munoz in Homestead, Fla.; Jon Sarche in Denver; Alex Veiga in Long Beach, Calif.; Andrew Dalton and Christina Almeida in Los Angeles; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala.; Jordan Robertson in San Francisco.