The 'Day Without Immigrants' protest returns a decade later. Will it be effective?

Mirroring efforts from 2006, immigrants launched a nationwide strike Thursday. This time, many have seen widespread support from employers. 

Todd McInturf /Detroit News/AP
Hundreds of people marched for approximately three miles on West Vernor from Clark Park to Patton Park in Southwest Detroit on Thursday, Feb. 16, as part of the nationwide boycott called 'A Day Without Immigrants.' Immigrants around the US stayed home from work and school Thursday to demonstrate how important they are to America’s economy and its way of life, and many businesses closed in solidarity.

Some restaurants, small businesses, and even schools across the country shut their doors Thursday to show the nation just what a United States without immigrants looks like.

Businesses and consumers in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Houston, Boston, and others may feel the strain of the “Day Without Immigrants” strikes on Thursday, as immigrants and advocates protest the Trump administration's agenda on immigration. The move is intended to highlight the vital role immigrants play in each industry, as well as in the economy by calling on immigrants to keep their wallets closed while also skipping school or work if they can.

While striking can sometimes put employees in jeopardy, many business owners have voiced their support of the movement and made adjustments to their daily routines. Some restaurants are shutting their doors for the day, while others are expressing their solidarity and allowing those who wish to participate the day off – in some cases, with full pay included. Others have offered to donate proceeds to advocacy and charity organizations.

Of course, some closed schools and restaurants aren’t enough to shift the Trump administration away from its charted immigration course. But halting the pace of daily life enough to start a conversation on a national level could be the first step in undermining the legitimacy of policies, and lead to the continuation of a larger, organized movement, says Jamila Raqib, executive director of The Albert Einstein Institution, a non-profit organization that studies methods of nonviolent resistance.

“It’s a really powerful symbolic action,” Ms. Raqib tells The Christian Science Monitor. “It is meant to spark a discussion. It is meant to demonstrate the value of these communities in our society. If it does that, it becomes a powerful method.”

Noting the impact that immigrant workers have on their establishments, some employers planned to scale back their offerings or cautioned customers about longer waits, as they cannot meet normal demands without their immigrant employees.

For restaurants, an industry that relies heavily on immigrant workers to stay afloat, the day became a way for many businesses to show solidarity.

Eataly, an Italian market-style restaurant with locations in New York City and Boston, issued a statement supporting any workers who chose to strike.

“We apologize for any delay or disruption you might experience tomorrow at Eataly. We are an immigrant company, born in Italy, with many immigrant employees. Any team member who chooses to participate in the national ‘Day Without Immigrants’ protest strike has our support.”

Restaurants "are the land of hope and opportunity for many immigrants, and we’re able to take them from entry-level jobs to middle management and middle income to even restaurant ownership,” says Bob Luz, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “We embrace and support our workforce very much, and we had a few members that had brought to our attention that they had employees who wanted to participate in this.”

He noted that the industry’s flexibility and often close relationships between restaurant owners and their employees can play a supportive role in facilitating approved striking, but also that only a few of the state’s 15,000 restaurants had indicated that workers planned to strike.

The strike mirrors a similar event in 2006, where immigrants held large protests across the nation. While some have argued that the activist event petered out without successful followup, others say that the demonstrations served to make the Latino community more politically active, and ultimately helped to usher in the DREAM Act.

Supportive businesses could lead to boosts in participation – and offers of support could mark the difference between past movements and the current resurgence of strikes as a tool of protest.

“Participating in action helps to build capacity, capacity to take action in the future,” Raqib says. Working “to lower the barrier to that type of participation and how different segments of the population can help to do that. I think we’re seeing that with the support that’s being given by restaurant owners.”  

Immigrants made up 13.3 percent of the nation’s population as of 2014, bringing the total to just over 42 million people, according to statistics compiled by the Migrant Policy Institute last year. In the same year, Pew Research Center estimates that 11.1 million undocumented immigrants were living in the US.

The grassroots protest follows three weeks of anti-immigration policies under the Trump administration, as well as a divisive campaign cycle marked by harsh rhetoric against religious and ethnic minorities. So far, President Trump has signed an executive order calling for a border wall to be built between the US and Mexico and another that temporarily barred immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the US while also placing a hold on all refugees. That order has temporarily been halted by a federal judge.

Then, last week, sweeping immigration raids in almost a dozen states resulted in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents taking more than 680 people into custody. While some say the raids were routine and mirrored others that took place under former President Barack Obama, others note that policy changes have heightened fears in the communities, and could prove the early stages of a more extreme approach.

“Each presidential administration can decide who is a priority for deportation, of course,” Christina Fialho, executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, told the Monitor earlier this week. “But President Trump’s executive orders have taken a very expansive view of the term ‘criminal,’ applying it in ways not seen before.”

That fear likely spurred grassroots activists to launch the protest quickly, advancing the strike for a May 1 date to Thursday.

“We don’t know where this started, and as far as we know, there isn’t anyone putting it all together,” Maria Fernanda Cabello, an organizer with the immigrant advocacy group Cosecha, told The New York Times,. “We started seeing messages about it in different cities a few weeks ago, and it’s really picked up in the last couple of days.”

In some neighborhoods, the strike’s impact will be felt beyond those looking to grab lunch at their favorite restaurant or cafe. In D.C., at least one charter school and a Jumpstart preschool had to close for the day after too many teachers and employees took the day off.

“We don’t really have much of a choice because our folks have paid leave and we honor that,” Dee Dee Parker Wright, executive director of Jubilee JumpStart, told The Washington Post. “Part of our mission is that we are community-based, and we know that our staff comes from the community and we try to support everybody in what’s fair and right.”

Still, some note that the day of action could lose its relevance if continued activism and organizing fail to follow.

Gigi Stetler, the owner of an RV dealership in Davie, Fla., who also works with horses, says she has hired immigrants for jobs for which no Americans expressed interest. Her employees’ strong work ethics have helped her to grow her business, and she worries what will happen to various industries if mass deportations target undocumented workers.

She supported the strike, but was hesitant to think it would bring any real change to the current political climate. Instead, she says, more activism is needed from the business owners who reap the benefits of immigrants’ work to really push back on policies.

“If [workers] just don’t show up at the restaurant, it’s not enough,” Ms. Stetler tells the Monitor. “The businesses that hire these people are the ones that need to do something.”

But it is a first step, she says. And that could help some people to better understand who immigrants are and why they come to America.

“An action like this really undermines the legitimacy of particular policies. The first step is denying legitimacy while groups figure out how to take steps that are more powerful to block the policies,” Raqib says. “I think people feel that this is the right time.”

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