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Pro-immigrant groups are divided

Some fear boycott of work, school will hurt efforts

By Erin Texeira
Associated Press / May 1, 2006
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NEW YORK -- Now that immigrants have grabbed the nation's attention, backers of efforts to legalize undocumented workers are divided about how to keep their movement going.

Today has been set aside for immigrants to boycott work, school, and shopping to show how much they matter to their communities. But with some growing tired of street protests, and others afraid they will be deported or fired for walking out, some people are planning to support the effort in other ways.

Rallies, voter registration drives, and religious services have been organized in many states, including Massachusetts, so people can show their support without engaging in an economic boycott.

Some will work but buy nothing today. Others will protest at lunch breaks or at rallies after work. There will be candlelight vigils, picnics, and human chains.

The range of activities shows both how powerful the immigrants' rights movement has become in a matter of weeks, and that organizers do not have a consensus on its next step.

''It's highly unpredictable what's going to happen," said Harley Shaiken, director of the Center for Latin American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. ''What unites everyone . . . is they are making visible their strong feelings."

Some supporters of legalization, including prominent Hispanic groups, fear that the boycott on work and spending might be a tactical blunder.

Unleashing a boycott now ''would be throwing the atomic bomb . . . the last weapon in our arsenal," said Jaime Contreras, chairman of the National Capital Immigration Coalition. His group, which turned out hundreds of thousands of marchers for an April 10 rally on the National Mall, is not asking supporters to skip work or school.

''We will carefully watch movement on the Hill and will reserve the tactic of a strike if and when it is most necessary," Contreras said.

The real need to flex political muscle may come later this year -- when congressional negotiators meet to reconcile the Senate's expansive vision of the immigration law overhaul with a narrower House bill that tightens the border, criminalizes illegal immigrants, and cracks down on rogue employers.

''Any kind of action or strategy that could give us a negative backlash of some kind is unhelpful in passing the legislation we need," said Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who traveled last week to Washington to lobby the White House and Congress for passage of a legalization bill. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops urged immigrants to attend Mass instead of boycotting.

President Bush, who says he supports a comprehensive immigration overhaul, said Friday he opposes the boycott.

Because of the success of previous rallies plus media attention, planning for today's events, collectively called Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes, or A Day Without Immigrants, is widespread.

Officials in Los Angeles braced for huge crowds: Assistant Police Chief George Gascon said as many as 500,000 people could take part.

In smaller cities such as Omaha and Knoxville, Tenn., immigrants and their allies have been going door to door with fliers and putting up posters. In New Mexico, restaurants cooked meals that they will donate to picnics today in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. In Pomona, Calif., dozens of men who frequent a day labor center voted unanimously to close the center today, said director Mike Nava.

In New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania, people boycotting work will march to the offices of elected officials to urge them to support pro-immigrant legislation. In California, although a spokeswoman for Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said a boycott would ''hurt everyone," Democratic state senators passed a resolution supporting walkouts.

Opponents of illegal immigration spent the weekend building a fence to symbolize their support of a secure border. About 200 volunteers organized by the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps of California worked on a 6-foot barbed-wire fence along a quarter-mile stretch of rugged terrain near the US-Mexico border.

Many worry that not working or spending money will alienate business leaders, and that cutting classes sends an anti-education message.

Some marches and voter information meetings are scheduled to be held after work and school. Those who go to school or work are being urged to wear white clothes or white armbands. Several school districts have sent letters to students' parents and threatened punishment if students have unexcused absences, but some teachers plan to focus on immigration issues in classes and seminars on campus.

In each of New York City's five boroughs, thousands of workers are expected to take work breaks shortly after noon to link arms with shoppers, restaurant patrons, and other supporters for about 20 minutes. ''This will symbolize the interdependence of all of us, not just immigrants, but all of society," said Chung-Wa Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.

Many hope that bosses also will join their efforts.

Some big businesses are shutting down operations, corporate spokesmen said: Six of 14 Perdue Farms plants will close; Gallo Wines in Sonoma, Calif., is giving its 150 employees the day off; and Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat producer, will shut five of its nine beef plants and four of six pork plants.

Greg Schirf, owner of Wasatch Beers in Utah, said that when some of his Latino employees asked if they could take the day off, he responded: ''How about this? We'll just take a company holiday. We'll call it 'Latino Appreciation Day.' "

Material from Knight Ridder was included in this report.