Immigrant Activism Taking A Bold Turn

Immigrant activism taking a bold turn

By Emily Bazar,

A business along Route 1 in Woodbridge, Va., displays a sign calling for the Prince William County “Anti-Immigrant Resolution” to be rescinded. However, such signage can backfire if shoppers who oppose illegal immigration avoid the stores.

Christian Ocampo makes about $200 a day selling nutritional supplements to fellow Hispanics in Milwaukee. His income helps support his mother, who uses a wheelchair, and his 21-year-old sister.

If Ocampo misses work, he doesn't get paid.

On Wednesday, though, Ocampo, 26, skipped work to become part of an increasingly bold wave of activism by illegal immigrants and their supporters who are frustrated by the treatment of immigrants across the USA. In what was billed as a national day of protest, immigrants in Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities took part in a range of activities, including a one-day work stoppage and boycott of local businesses in Milwaukee.

The actions were the latest examples of how immigrants including illegal ones such as Ocampo, who came here from Mexico six years ago are staying home from work, boycotting businesses, marching on government offices and speaking out in a controversial effort to spotlight the economic impact of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

The in-your-face activism is in response to intensifying crackdowns on illegal immigrants by local and federal authorities in recent months. Dozens of cities and counties, frustrated by Congress' failure to pass a law to revamp the overwhelmed immigration system, have adopted their own policies aimed at discouraging illegal immigration. Most of the local measures have penalized landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and businesses that hire them.

Meanwhile, federal officials have stepped up raids on workplaces.

Illegal immigrants, who for years have been largely silent and sometimes off-the-books providers of labor in local economies, now increasingly are standing up to be heard. Many figure that the risk of speaking out is outweighed by fears they will lose their jobs or even be deported if they don't make their case to the public.

“If we don't do something now to be heard, the consequences will be that many people will lose their jobs and many families will go hungry,” Ocampo says. “It's worth losing one day's pay.”

In Waukegan, Ill., immigrants kicked off a boycott on Independence Day. In Oklahoma City and Atlanta, immigrants are holding prayer vigils this month and next to protest what they call anti-immigrant legislation. In Prince William County, Va., about 35 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., immigrants boycotted businesses for a week and plan to stay home from work Oct. 9.

“Our people are very angry, especially here in Arizona,” says Elias Bermudez, founder of Immigrants Without Borders in Phoenix. His group organized a consumer boycott last week and asked immigrants not to go to work. “This is an action of last resort.”

Ocampo says he doesn't mind engaging in the risky tactics even if it means attracting the attention of police or immigration officials. “I am not afraid because it is so important that our voice be heard,” he says. “It's important not just for my mother and my sister and myself, but for the many people who are in a more difficult situation.”

The impact of such actions on local businesses has been unclear. But the publicity they have generated has fueled debate over illegal immigration in many communities and led to criticism that the protests could undermine the cause by alienating employers, lawmakers and even fellow immigrants.

“We are not going to support illegal aliens,” says Desi Arnaiz, the son of Cuban immigrants and owner of a computer services business in Manassas, Va. The Prince William County boycott, organized in response to a county plan to deny some government services to illegal immigrants, ended on Labor Day.

Arnaiz says the boycott frustrated business owners.

Illegal immigrants “wouldn't be here if some businesses didn't employ them,” he says. “Why annoy the businesspeople? Of all the stupid things to do.”

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates reduced immigration, believes the burst of activism signals desperation among immigrants disappointed that a proposed congressional overhaul of the immigration system collapsed in June. The plan would have created a process for some illegal immigrants to earn legal status.

“Spokesmen for illegal immigrants are looking for whatever tactic is available,” he says. “The normal legislative process hasn't worked for them so far.”

'Doing it in solidarity'

Immigrant leaders say boycotts are effective because they prove that the economy would suffer without immigrant workers.

“We're going to give the state of Arizona a little taste of what could happen without the labor force of the Hispanic community and also of our purchasing power,” Bermudez said last week. “If the undocumented leave the United States, the U.S. is going to suffer the most, not the undocumented people.”

Under a law that takes effect Jan. 1, Arizona employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants can have their business licenses suspended or revoked. Bermudez says the law could be disastrous for the economy because immigrants work low-paying but critical jobs at dairies, farms, construction sites and elsewhere.

Bermudez and other activists emphasize that all immigrants, not just those here illegally, participate in the protests.

As local governments dabble in immigration enforcement and in some cases train their police to be de facto immigration agents, some legal immigrants are concerned they'll be targeted just as illegal immigrants are, says Mauricio Vivero of Ayuda, a non-profit law firm for immigrants in Washington, D.C.

Some legal immigrants believe businesses will avoid hiring Hispanic workers altogether or that police will engage in racial profiling, detaining people based on appearance, he says.

“There's fear in the community. People are concerned they will be discriminated against,” he says. “For a poor immigrant who doesn't speak English but may be perfectly legal, they're concerned they may be picked up.”

Bill Hing, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in immigration, says legal immigrants are participating because some of their loved ones are here illegally.

“The community is made up of a lot of mixed families,” Hing says. “There might be 10-to-13 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. You can multiply that five or six times to determine the number of people it affects, because of relatives and employers and co-workers and friends. There are a lot of people frustrated that nothing was done” by Congress.

Yesenia Rivas' family is an example. Twelve of her relatives, legal and illegal immigrants from El Salvador, participated in the Prince William boycott, she says. The guidelines were simple: Spend money only at immigrant-owned businesses or those displaying a “pro-immigrant” poster.

“Some family members are illegal but have been here most of their lives,” she says. “My father is here legally now, but he was here illegally for 20 years.”

During the boycott, Rivas, 17, washed clothes at a laundry that displayed the “pro-immigrant” sign. Her parents went to nearby Fairfax County for groceries and gas. “We're doing it in solidarity,” Rivas says. “We understand what they're going through.”

Boycotts can backfire

Do such boycotts work? That's debatable.

Hing says he hopes they have a noticeable impact but acknowledges that such tactics don't always accomplish much.

“If they are unified and have a very large boycott, it can be felt. That will catch people's attention,” he says. “If it's not massive or in a part of the country where there are not that many immigrants, it's going to be mocked.”

Immigrants in Waukegan have had a boycott going since July 4. Organizers asked businesses to display a poster opposing a program that trains local police to enforce federal immigration laws. Businesses that do not display the sign are supposed to be avoided.

Alderman Sam Cunningham, who opposed the police plan, says restaurant owners and developers have complained about the boycott. “Every business that I've talked to said, 'We've lost business,' or people aren't coming in.”

Waukegan Mayor Richard Hyde believes the boycott there backfired. He says Hispanic-owned businesses have taken the brunt of the economic losses because shoppers who oppose illegal immigration have made a point of avoiding stores that display the sign.

“It was disastrous for the Hispanic businesses. It reversed on them,” Hyde says. “The people who benefited were the white businesses.”

The activism is not limited to boycotts. The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders will hold a prayer rally Sunday in Atlanta and one next month in Oklahoma City to protest state immigration policies, says Miguel Rivera, president of the coalition. Rivera says 38% of the coalition's church members are here illegally.

Wednesday's protests were called by Elvira Arellano, a Mexican who took refuge in a Chicago church last year rather than report for deportation. She left the church in August to attend rallies in Los Angeles, where U.S. agents caught up with her and deported her.

Fears of being profiled

In Prince William County, the immigrant population has ballooned alongside the population of professionals seeking bigger, cheaper homes than those closer to Washington. Day laborers mill in front of convenience stores, waiting for contractors and homeowners to drive by and offer work. Shopping centers have Mexican bakeries as well as McDonald's restaurants.

Immigrant activists have been particularly critical of a part of the local resolution that requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they detain if there is reason to believe the person is undocumented. Officials haven't determined how they will do that.

“People are saying they feel targeted, afraid, persecuted,” says Ricardo Juarez of Mexicanos Sin Fronteras (Mexicans Without Borders), which organized the boycott. His group is asking workers to stay home from work Oct. 9.

“The purpose of the boycott isn't to punish the residents and businesses in the community,” he says. “The purpose is to show that we contribute directly from our pockets, no matter what our status.”

Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, calls the boycott “foolish.”

“If the boycott was meant to engender sympathy or fear, what it has done is create a whole lot of anger toward the illegal immigrant community and their supporters,” Stewart says. “There is no excuse for breaking the law.”

He says illegal immigrants have crowded hospitals, schools and homes in the county and contributed to a growing gang problem. One-fifth of the county jail inmates are illegal immigrants, he says.

Angelica Fuentes counters that most illegal immigrants are hard-working people who give more than they take. Fuentes, 25, came to the USA illegally from Guatemala two years ago and participated in the Prince William boycott.

“We have to say something, because we are getting frustrated,” she says. “Things are getting worse for us. In the past, you could get a driver's license, you could get an apartment, you could get a job. Now, you can't.”

Fuentes has nine brothers and sisters in the USA, four of them here legally. Some live in Los Angeles, some in Prince William. All of her Virginia relatives joined the boycott, says Fuentes, who works at a printing shop six days a week.

Thinking about her future in the United States, she starts to cry.

“I am so depressed about the situation that I don't feel human, sometimes,” she says. “They are right that we are not legal. We are wrong. But we are stealing nothing. We work so hard. They need us.”


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