USA First Look

'A day without immigrants' arrives: Can a strike move immigrants' concerns forward?

By walking off their jobs and away from stores, immigrants hope to illustrate their importance to the US economy.

Family members who have just arrived from Syria embrace and are greeted by family who live in the United States upon their arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Feb. 6, 2017. Organizers in cities across the US are telling immigrants to miss class, miss work and not shop on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, as a way to show the country how important they are to America's economy and way of life. A "Day Without Immigrants" actions are planned in cities including Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, and Austin, Texas.
Craig Ruttle/AP
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From Washington, D.C. to Albuquerque, N.M., Americans are waking up to the prospect of a “Day Without Immigrants.”

A national grassroots campaign is urging immigrants to avoid work and shopping on Thursday to demonstrate how their absence could effect the US economy. Some activists may not be sure where the social media-driven campaign originated, but their target is clear: what they call anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies from President Trump, such as the now-halted travel ban blocking refugees and visitors from seven predominantly Muslim nations.

"Mr. President, without us and without our contribution this country is paralyzed," read one widely-shared poster.

By walking off work and away from businesses, immigrants hope to illustrate that point.

Some of the highest-profile actions are planned for the Washington, D.C. area. Spanish-born celebrity chef José Andrés announced that he would close five of his restaurants in and near the city after seeing the campaign’s importance to his employees.

"People that never missed one day of work are telling you they don't want to work on Thursday," he told Reuters. "They want to say: 'Here we are,' by not showing up. The least I could do was to say: 'OK, we stand by you.'"

Other D.C.-area closures that policy makers may notice include Sweetgreen, a popular salad chain, and Busboys and Poets, whose bookstore-cafes were started by an Iraqi immigrant.

In one of many coordinated actions beyond the Beltway, the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in Massachusetts is participating from Thursday to Tuesday by draping or removing artwork created by immigrants.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, where nearly half the population is Hispanic, Albuquerque Public Schools has taken a more cautious view of today's events. "We respectfully ask all parents to acknowledge that students need to be in class every day to benefit from the education they are guaranteed and to avoid falling behind in school and life," principals in the school system wrote in a letter to parents, according to the Associated Press.

Immigration-rights advocates first employed a nationwide, daylong strike in 2006, in response to Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin introducing a bill that would have increased fines for hiring undocumented workers and penalties for being in the country without documentation, among other measures.

That year’s “un dia sin inmigrantes,” Spanish for a "A Day Without Immigrants,"  protests and strikes drew massive turnout across the country – including an estimated 500,000 marchers in Los Angeles alone.

But in the decade since, it’s been difficult to assess their impact. Mr. Sensenbrenner’s House bill never passed the Senate, but deportations increased for the next six years.

Some observers have argued that the rallies drew a backlash in the form of increased vigilante activity along the border, tough anti-immigration legislation in states like Arizona, and, more recently, Mr. Trump’s calls for a border wall and mass deportations.

But others say that the events of 2006 also moved the immigrant-rights movement forward.

In the Los Angeles Times last March, writers and activists Mark and Paul Engler argued that the experience of organizing and protesting paved the way for later gains – like the protests at then-President Obama’s 2012 campaign headquarters that came a few weeks before the announcement of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which holds off deportations for immigrants brought to the US illegally as children.

Those gains are now under threat, immigration advocates argue, raising the stakes of today’s protests.

“We may lose a day at work,” one poster shared on Facebook, “but we could be gaining so much more.”

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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