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'Day Without Immigrants' resonates across Los Angeles, even if many still go to work

Elias Ortiz was eager to join the boycott.

On Thursday morning, however, he went to the corner of State Street and Florence Avenue and did the one thing that guaranteed him $65 at the end of the day.

He threw on his blue gorilla costume and worked, waving a red and white sign to promote a nearby insurance business.

“It hurts my heart,” the Mexican immigrant said about not joining the boycott, but he couldn’t afford to lose his job. 

Like Ortiz, many immigrants in Los Angeles rooted for a “Day Without Immigrants,” a protest that shut down down restaurants, construction sites and businesses nationwide to highlight the contributions immigrants make to the U.S. economy. But most couldn’t risk skipping a day of work. 

The demonstration was directed at President Trump and his plans to crack down on immigration, including building a border wall, stripping sanctuary cities of federal funding and potentially deporting millions of immigrants without documentation. 

In Los Angeles, traffic felt lighter, some restaurants closed and several thousand students stayed home from school. But overall, life seemed to tick along as usual, even in neighborhoods made up entirely of immigrants.

It was a lukewarm response from the country’s second-largest city, compared to places such as Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Texas, where protesters emptied out bustling business corridors and marched in the streets.

Many immigrant organizations in Los Angeles did not help organize the boycott, said Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Mexican Network. She didn’t feel comfortable endorsing it because it would have put immigrants at risk. 

“If we make the call and ask people to risk possibly losing their job, we have a responsibility to help them,” Sanbrano said. 

Some groups such as the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles kept their doors open because people are in dire need of their services, given recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement sweeps, said spokesman Jorge-Mario Cabrera.

Families, anxious and afraid, lined up at their office, starting at 5 a.m.  Some waited to become citizens, others needed legal advice.

“We felt it was our duty to be open now for families,” Cabrera said.

The fact that the boycott began online, rather than with long-standing organizations, was a refreshing change, but it also limited its reach, said Roberto Hernandez, an assistant professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University. 

“It is too early to tell what will come from it,” he said, “and a lot depends on how this was organized, whether top-down from restaurant bosses, or bottom-up from the people themselves.”

Nationwide, restaurants, which reportedly initiated the boycott, got creative in their response. They canceled long-standing reservations, served limited menus and donated proceeds of the day to the American Civil Liberties Union. Some posted big banners outside their eateries. The Nickel Diner’s in downtown read: “We are all immigrants.”

Kreation Juice, with locations across Los Angeles, shut down its factory and 14 businesses for the day, but still planned to pay employees. 

Ortiz, who dressed like a gorilla for work, said he tries to participate in most immigrant marches. This one was particularly important, he added, because “the president is crazy. You don’t know what he might do.”

The 63-year-old hurt his back last year and lost his job as a gardener. He tried to find jobs in plumbing, gardening and electricity, but had no luck. He eventually lost his apartment and now lives in his car.

The mascot job is the most stable work he’s found. 

Like Ortiz, many immigrants showed their support in other ways though they had to work. Maria Rios, 39, of Maywood said she and her husband planned to honor the day by not making any purchases. 

“We’re going to the bank to make a deposit and that’s it,” Rios said. “This is something we have to support all the way.”

Meanwhile, groups of students turned out in force.  At L.A. Unified schools, about 3,000 students more than usual were absent. And in the Long Beach School District, the county’s second-largest, about 9,000 students skipped school — triple the amount of the day before.

At Santee Education Complex just south of downtown L.A., Jose Lara, the dean of students, didn’t expect many absences on Thursday. He’d only seen a flyer circulating on social media, and he knew many advocacy groups would not take part.

But when he got to campus Thursday morning, close to 600 children didn’t show. The high school, which has about 2,000 students, is known for its activism and large immigrant population.

“It just shows that people are anxious,” Lara said. “That people want to raise their voices in opposition to Trump’s policies, and they’re not OK with what he’s been pushing ... They’re going to have their voices heard one way or another.”

Some teachers considered showing up at school a form of protest. Darius Fequiere, a special education teacher at New Open World Academy in Koreatown, said he was proud of his students for boycotting, but he wanted them to truly understand their actions.

He spent Thursday talking to his class about the protest, with a third of his students absent.

“Everyone can go and walk out,” Fequiere said. "But my students’ ability to understand why they’re doing things and having the information to protect themselves and protect their families … I think that is the ultimate form of protest.”

Fequiere showed his class a video that explained what to do during an immigrant raid.  Many of his students live between Westlake and Pico Union, home to large immigrant populations. They show up to school, wanting to talk about immigration round-ups and deportation. Some are afraid to leave home.  

“It’s a lot for them to handle and it’s a lot for them to process,” Fequiere said. “These are the things that they face every day.”

Andrea Castillo contributed to this report.

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