Immigrants Flex Economic Muscle

Hundreds of thousands of mostly Hispanic immigrants skipped work and took to the streets Monday, flexing their economic muscle in a nationwide boycott that succeeded in slowing or shutting many farms, factories, markets and restaurants.

From Los Angeles to Chicago, Houston to New Orleans, the "Day Without Immigrants" attracted widespread participation despite divisions among activists over whether a boycott would send the right message to Washington lawmakers considering sweeping immigration reform.

"We are the backbone of what America is, legal or illegal, it doesn't matter," said Melanie Lugo, who was among thousands attending a rally in Denver with her husband and their third-grade daughter. "We butter each other's bread. They need us as much as we need them."

Police estimated 400,000 people marched through Chicago's business district and tens of thousands more rallied in New York and Los Angeles, where police stopped giving estimates at 60,000 as the crowd kept growing. CBS News national correspondent Byron Pitts reports the impact was felt on Los Angeles' famed 7th Street Market as 85 businesses closed.

An estimated 75,000 rallied in Denver, more than 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.

In Los Angeles, protesters wearing white and waving U.S. flags sang the national anthem in English as traditional Mexican dancers wove through the crowd.

CBS News' Jennifer Miller reports from Chicago — one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States, with Mexicans making up its largest foreign-born population — that immigrants of all ethnicities gathered together in a show of unity. They marched, many holding hands, three miles through the heart of the city.




In Phoenix, protesters formed a human chain in front of Wal-Mart and Home Depot stores. A protest in Tijuana, Mexico, blocked vehicle traffic heading to San Diego at the world's busiest border crossing.

CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella reported from Dodge City, Kan., where 15,000 Hispanic immigrants make up half the area's population. Thousands marched down Main Street, where usually busy Hispanic-owned shops were closed.

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?"

"They should be commended for taking these steps, although I do think it was a little bit of a distraction," commented New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. "What I would like to see is demonstration in Washington, in the Congress."

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."

Pitts reports that unlike last month's wave of demonstrations, politicians didn't simply take notice, many also showed up Monday.

"The problem is we've been engaging in hypocrisy in this country," Sen. Barak Obama, D-Ill., told Pitts. "We don't mind these folks mowing our lawns, looking after our children or serving us at restaurants, as long as they don't actually ask for any rights in return."


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.

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.

None of the 175 seasonal laborers who normally work Mike Collins' 500 acres of 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."

It was the same story in Indiana, where the owner of a landscaping business said he was at a loss. About 25 Hispanic workers — 90 percent of the field work force — never reported Monday to Salsbery Brothers Landscaping.

"We're basically shut down in our busiest month of the year," said owner Jeff Salsbery. "It's going to cost me thousands of dollars."

In the Los Angeles area, restaurants and markets were dark and truckers avoided the nation's largest shipping port. About one in three small businesses was closed downtown, including the cluttered produce market and fashion district.

The construction and nursery industries were among the hardest hit by the work stoppage in Florida.

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 showed up.

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, Alabama, company that supplies Hispanic laborers to companies around the southeastern U.S., 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."