- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Hundreds of thousands of people boycotted their own jobs and stayed away from what they saw as “gringo” businesses yesterday.

Many instead took to the streets in major cities to demonstrate the political and economic power of immigrants and illegal aliens.

Protesters — most of whom were Hispanic — waved U.S., and Mexican and other Latin American flags as they flooded streets in New York and Los Angeles. An estimated 400,000 marched in Chicago, 75,000 took part in Denver, and thousands showed up for rallies in other cities. The largest demonstrations were in Los Angeles, where police estimated that two major marches drew more than 650,000 people.

Both police and organizers said more than a million people marched nationwide yesterday, with some estimates topping 1.5 million.

The protesters sought to influence the current immigration debate, by both supporting efforts to legalize the estimated 12 million illegal aliens and opposing the bill that passed the House of Representatives in December that would make illegal presence a felony and would crack down on employers who hire illegal aliens.

Speaking earlier in the day, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said he couldn’t predict the rallies’ effect on the policy debate, but the president’s position on the walkouts was clear.

“The president is not a fan of boycotts,” Mr. McClellan said. “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.”

Unlike last month’s marches in protest of the House immigration-enforcement bill, which drew support from a broad spectrum of politicians, lawmakers yesterday urged schoolchildren to attend class and workers to go to their jobs.

Last month’s marches may also have hurt the protesters’ cause. Some polls showed Americans were less sympathetic to immigrants’ demands in the wake of those marches, and many people complained publicly about the proliferation of non-American flags at the events.

“We’re not criminals,” Belem Orozco, an illegal alien who attended the rally in Denver, said in Spanish as her 9-year-old son, David, translated. “We’re people who work. We want to help the United States.”

Mrs. Orozco, who has lived in Denver for 13 years, didn’t have to call in sick — her employer Cintas, a uniform supplier, gave its employees the day off, she said.

In Phoenix, where about 3,000 people turned out for protests at various locations, Angel Lopez, an illegal alien, said she is not a criminal and has worked as a hotel housekeeper every day since arriving three years ago.

“I did not understand why members of Congress think I’m a criminal and want to deport me and think nothing of employers that hired me,” she said. “Shouldn’t they be penalized, too?”

Miss Lopez said none of the illegals she knows here fear being arrested while on the job. She also said she has a 9-month-old son who was born in Phoenix, making him a U.S. citizen.

“When you send me home because I’m a criminal, will you deport him, too?” she said.

The total effect of the economic boycott was not clear yesterday. Some firms closed their doors, and no major disturbances were reported.

In Dallas, several supermarkets — including nine owned by Malone’s Food Stores — closed. General manager Rick Gomez said the move was a gesture of support. The company’s work force is more than 45 percent Hispanic and upward of 90 percent of its business is from the Hispanic community.

The most immediate effect was in some schools in heavily Hispanic areas, which reported high absentee rates. About 72,000 middle- and high-school students stayed home from school in Los Angeles, and one Denver high school reported an absentee rate of 98 percent.

Late in the afternoon, hundreds of people gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House fence for a rally. Of the dozens of flags they waved at the presidential residence, about half were American and the rest were from Latin America, including Brazilian, Mexican, Dominican and Honduran.

They shouted slogans and sometimes began chanting “U-S-A,” although that chant often morphed into “si se puede,” a common protest rally cry which translates roughly from Spanish as “Yes, we can.”

Dallas television station KXAS conducted an online poll yesterday of whether employers should be allowed to fire workers who missed work to attend the rallies and found overwhelming support for employers. As of 7 p.m., 68 percent, or more than 38,000 votes, of responses to the unscientific, self-selecting survey, said it was OK to fire workers, while 13 percent said it was legally OK but morally wrong. Just 18 percent said they should keep their jobs.

For yesterday’s boycott, the protesters chose May Day, traditionally a worldwide socialist holiday, with workers marching in recognition of workers’ rights.

Opponents organized against the protests, although on a much smaller scale. Some Hispanics announced the formation of a group called You Don’t Speak for Me, meant to highlight Hispanics who want more border enforcement and oppose legalization of illegal aliens.

“Millions of Hispanic-Americans — including many who have gone through the immigration process the right way — are offended by the demands being made by people who have broken our nation’s laws,” said Pete Nunez, former assistant Treasury Department secretary, at a press conference organized by the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

In Denver, Defend Colorado Now, an anti-illegal immigration group, held a counterrally, and Ron Niemala spent his day off holding anti-illegal immigration signs and tangling with demonstrators.

“You’re invading our country, buddy,” he told one young Hispanic man.

“This country isn’t yours,” the man retorted. “We were here first.”

Marchers numbered in the tens of thousands in New York, Atlanta and Oakland, Calif., with about 15,000 more in Houston and 50,000 in San Jose, Calif.

In Los Angeles, marchers chanted, “Today, we march, tomorrow, we vote, and if they deport us, we will jump over the border fence.” Whole neighborhoods in the nation’s second-largest city and its port were virtually shut down, though the usually congested Southern California freeways were largely empty.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents yesterday raided 15 locations in New York and New Jersey to smash a “human-trafficking ring” that smuggled Mexicans into the country and may have forced women to work as prostitutes.

ICE conducted the raids early Monday after New Jersey State Police pulled over two vehicles carrying at least 10 women who had been working in brothels in Virginia, Maryland and Washington. Agents arrested 36 women and 30 men.

• Jerry Seper reported from Phoenix and Valerie Richardson reported from Denver. Stephen Dinan in Washington and Hugh Aynesworth in Dallas also contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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