- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Slightly higher school absenteeism and spotty business closures across the region made participation in yesterday’s immigrant boycott difficult to gauge, but the hundreds of people who turned out for an afternoon rally at Malcolm X Park in Northwest said they knew their absence was felt.

“I think the more pressure [we put on lawmakers], the more people will have to listen,” said Salvadoran immigrant Lidia Reyes, a 32-year-old resident of Northwest. “Hopefully it will work, [because] we’re here to stay.”

Hundreds of local immigrants and illegal aliens joined thousands of others across the nation in observance of “A Day Without Immigrants” — a one-day boycott of work, school and commerce. Its aim was to show immigrants’ impact on the U.S. economy and influence lawmakers considering immigration-reform legislation in Congress.

School officials in Arlington, Prince William and Fairfax counties reported higher-than-usual absenteeism, especially in schools with many Hispanic students.

About 1,150 Arlington County sixth- to 12th-graders, or 8.8 percent, were absent yesterday compared with 5 percent last Monday, said public schools spokeswoman Laura Neff-Henderson.

At T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, officials noted high absentee rates, particularly in English-as-a-second-language classes.

“They’re down about 50 percent, and that’s not just Latino students, it’s all immigrant groups,” said city schools spokeswoman Amy Carlini.

Meanwhile, at least 60 businesses in Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan — including jewelry, music and arts stores and H&R; Block — closed their doors, according to the District-based National Capital Immigrant Coalition (NCIC), which organized rallies earlier this month.

“Some gringos shut down to show solidarity, and I think it’s fabulous,” said Leyda Molina, 38, a member of the immigrant-advocacy group Comite Monsenor Romero, which supported the boycott. “We definitely have a wonderful response from the community.”

Some construction companies also said their work forces were cut in half.

“Just talking to my superintendents, we’re down quite a bit on manpower,” said Ridge Kelly, a senior project manager for the Rockville-based James G. Davis Construction Corp.

Mr. Kelly said about 50 percent of the 250 workers at a site on K Street Northwest showed up to work, although some began work before dawn so they could participate in events scheduled for the afternoon.

Painters at the site “showed up at 4 o’clock in the morning and worked till 12 so they could still get in eight hours and go off and march,” he said.

In upper Fells Point, a burgeoning Hispanic section of Baltimore, the usual vibrant street life was markedly subdued.

The parking lot of the 7-Eleven, a gathering spot for day laborers, was empty. Several Hispanic-owned stores and restaurants, including the convenience stores Tienda Rosita and Bancomerico, were closed.

“Today is a lot slower,” said Celso Castilho, a graduate student of Latin American history at the University of California at Berkeley, who was visiting his girlfriend and planned to attend a pro-immigrant rally at a nearby city park.

“Who knows if the bottom line for businesses in this area are a little down?” said Mr. Castilho, 30. “The noise [the boycott] makes and attention it draws to the issue, I think, is important. It is a population that normally isn’t very politicized.”

Fewer than 10 blocks away, in the waterfront entertainment district of Fells Point, the boycott was less evident.

“It hasn’t affected us,” said a cashier at Brick Oven Pizza, who identified herself as Meghan.

“Our entire kitchen staff is from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala,” she said. “Everyone showed up. I kind of wish they didn’t. I’d like my boss to see how much we depend on them. … We’d close down without them.”

In Alexandria, about 200 Hispanic demonstrators rallied in a parking lot outside the Tenants’ and Workers’ Support Committee headquarters on Mount Vernon Avenue.

Honduras native Samuel Garcia, 28, hung out with a group of men beneath a small tree in the parking lot of a nearby AutoZone.

Five years ago, Mr. Garcia said that he, along with about 20 other people, paid $5,000 each for a “coyote” to take them on a three-day trek from Mexico across the California border. Now he is a roofer.

“We’re not here to harm anybody,” he told The Washington Times through a translator. “We’re not criminals, nor terrorists. We come here with all the enthusiasm to work. Whatever is given to us, we do.”

Mexicans Without Borders, a Woodbridge-based group for workers, gathered in Malcolm X Park in conjunction with the NCIC for an afternoon rally. Mexicans Without Borders originally split from the NCIC’s decision to withdraw support, but accepted NCIC’s invitation to hold the rally together, said Ricardo Juarez, the group’s chairman.

“We wanted to show the nation that May 1 is not an issue that will divide us,” Mr. Juarez said.

NCIC President Jaime Contreras said there is a legitimate concern that the protests may cause backlash, but people who become angry should show compassion.

“Immigration is not the problem,” he said. “The problem is we have a broken immigration system that is inadequate for the flow of immigrants.”

• Gary Emerling and Seth McLaughlin contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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