"No work, no school, no spending."
That was the rallying cry for the "A Day Without Immigrants" rallies that took place across the country on Monday (May 1), in which hundreds of thousands of immigrants took to the streets in major cities in a show of solidarity and strength as part of their effort to push Congress to act on stalled immigration reform.
The economic boycott was meant to show the purchasing power of the nation's immigrants, while the work stoppage forced a number of factories and businesses across the country to shut down for the day.
"It will be tens of millions from coast to coast, from Los Angeles to New York," said Javier Rodriguez, a spokesperson for groups gathered in Los Angeles and New Orleans, according to CNN.
Organizers were expecting huge turnouts in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., but even in smaller cities such as Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Louisville, Kentucky, the message was loud and clear. "Who will pick your fields and build your houses?" read a sign at an early-morning gathering of 8,000 people at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Homestead, Florida, according to The New York Times. Another sign read, "Who will pick your tomatoes?" Both bobbed over a group that shouted in Spanish, "We are here and we aren't leaving!"
The scene was repeated in other cities, such as Chicago, where hundreds of demonstrators gathered hours before the noon march was scheduled to begin and chanted, "Today we march, tomorrow we vote!" as they waved both Mexican and American flags. Officials in that city predicted one of the largest turnouts in the country, with early estimates of the number of marchers expected to mass in Grant Park at between 350,000 and 500,000, potentially making it one of the biggest demonstrations in Chicago's history.
Before the day's events started, a number of major U.S. companies that depend on immigrant labor announced that they would be closed for the day, according to the Los Angeles Times. Among them: Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat producer, which closed nine U.S. beef plants and four pork plants; Cargill, the second-largest meatpacker, which closed some plants; and Perdue Farms, which closed six of its 14 plants.
Though the message was somewhat unified, the demonstrations peaceful and the look familiar (white T-shirts symbolizing peace), organizers were split on the idea of a boycott as the best way to stage Monday's protest. Supporters hoped it would send a clear message about the country's dependence on immigrant workers at a time when congressional leaders are considering whether to allow millions of illegal immigrants to gain legal status, while opponents feared the walkout might be a setback to the protesters' goals.
A coalition of Hispanic-American groups held a news conference in Washington to make clear that the protesters do not represent all immigrants. "We understand the importance [and] contribution immigrants have made to the economy and the industry of this great nation," said retired Colonel Albert F. Rodriguez, a veteran of World War II and the Vietnam War, according to CNN. "But the difference is that we and millions of others like us did it legally. We're all here today to tell all those illegal protesters, 'You do not speak for me.' "
Senators also warned that the demonstrations could sidetrack the attempts to find a middle ground between the more moderate proposals in the Senate and the bill passed by the House in December that would make illegal immigrants felons. "I do think that these big demonstrations are counterproductive, and they hurt with a guy like me, who is trying to look at this in a way that is responsible," Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott said on Sunday.
The split was most visible in Los Angeles, where hundreds of thousands shut down major thoroughfares downtown with an early march, even as organizers and the city's first Latino mayor in 130 years, Antonio Villaraigosa, encouraged others to stay in school and go to work and attend a second rally scheduled for the late afternoon. The latest in a series of protests that began in March come as Congress reconvenes to begin work on hammering out a compromise bill on immigration. Even if they don't necessarily agree on the methods, the goal for the protesters is essentially the same: a path towards legalization for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.