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Immigrant advocacy groups have organized their May 1 boycott, hoping to show the country how important they are. Some think the event could backfire
Jesse Diaz is fired up. A coordinator for the March 25 Coalition, a Los Angeles-based immigrant advocacy group, Diaz is planning a massive job walk-out for Monday, May 1, that his outfit has dubbed "The Great American Boycott 2006: A Day Without an Immigrant." Since early April, Diaz has been soliciting groups from Chicago to New York to help convince millions of largely Latino immigrants, legal and illegal, to stay home from construction sites, agricultural fields, restaurants, and factories. "Once they are gone, people will know the value of immigrant labor," says Diaz.
But John Gay is worried. A vice-president at the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and co-chairman of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a pro-immigrant business lobby group, he thinks a massive strike by immigrant workers is a risky move. It could irk employers otherwise supportive of immigrant laborers and upset politicians pushing immigration reform in the halls of Congress. Already, he says, members of the NRA expect large numbers of workers to take the day off on Monday, potentially closing scores of restaurants. "Economically, it's going to have an impact," says Gay.
Buoyed by the success of huge rallies in March and April, the immigration reform movement is hoping to continue the momentum. But Monday's planned boycott is exposing rifts in their ranks. Some groups, such as the March 25 Coalition and the Mexican American Political Association, want to pour on the pressure by showing immigrants' economic muscle.
BAD FOR BUSINESS.
But other outfits such as the National Council of La Raza and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which have not endorsed the protest, are concerned a walkout could squander recent progress -- and even cost workers their jobs. It's no wonder tension is mounting. If even a fraction of the nation's immigrant workers stay home, the boycott will be a bane for business.
Latinos alone account for more than 42 million people in the U.S. -- including an estimated 12 million undocumented. With 17 million of them working, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, they represent 13% of the U.S. labor force. The nation's 7.2 million undocumented immigrant workers make up 24% of all farm workers, 17% of maintenance workers, and 9% of employees in production occupations.
Indeed, buzz about the boycott has been rippling through the immigrant community for weeks. While there are no estimated numbers for participation, support appears to be growing. On Thursday, agribusiness conglomerate Cargill, said that, after polling workers about the boycott, it plans to close seven meat-processing plants in the Midwest for the day.
And truckers in the Port of Los Angeles, a group that is 85% Latino, plan a walkout as part of a union organizing effort. "The word is out all over. People are talking. People are angry," says Jim DeMaegt, a lawyer and labor organizer assisting the truckers.
The planned boycott, to be held on International Workers' Day, comes at a critical juncture in the nation's heated debate over immigration. The U.S. Senate is scheduled to restart talks over its immigration reform bill on Monday, too. And protests that brought millions of immigrants into the streets in the last two months have already forced Republican House Majority Leader J. Dennis Hastert and Senate Republican Chief Bill Frist to repudiate a controversial component of a House bill that would have made being an illegal immigrant in the U.S. -- or helping one -- a criminal offense.
That's why some pro-immigrant groups think a widespread strike could generate a backlash. Already, anti-legal immigrant activists have used the rallies (which, early on, sparked anger when some immigrants waved Mexican flags) to galvanize more support. Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, a North Carolina-based group calling for a crackdown on illegal immigration, says it has received hundreds of calls and e-mails since the rallies. "The illegal alien protesters and support groups have unintentionally done us a great big favor," says William Gheen, president of ALIPAC.
Still, the risks -- and friction -- don't faze March 25 Coalition's Diaz. He points to the Web site, www.nohr4437.org, named after the tough House Resolution 4437, where dozens of groups from the Action Center for Justice in Charlotte, N.C., to the Wisconsin section of the Communist Party USA have endorsed the strike.
A downloadable flier available in English, Spanish, and Chinese reads: "No Work, No School, No Selling, No Buying." It calls for immigrants to wear white T-shirts or arm bands to show solidarity. "People are charged up," says Diaz, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California at Riverside.
But NRA's Gay thinks the boycott could create the wrong kind of energy. While members of his Essential Workers coalition back legislative reforms that would allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. and continue to serve as a vital source of labor, they think staging a walk-out could dampen their support. With groups like the Communist Party now seeking to piggyback on the immigration reform movement, he worries the positive vibe of previous rallies could seep away. "It's starting to look like the anti-World Bank, IMF, Bush-out-of-Iraq protests," says Gay. "It's just going to turn people off."
With Congress expected to push hard to pass an immigration reform bill before the November elections, hopes are high among pro-immigrant groups that a new law will allow many immigrants to remain in the U.S. That's why they also hope that "A Day Without an Immigrant" on May 1 doesn't ultimately backfire -- and turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy.