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National Boycott Plans Creating a New Divide

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles restaurant worker Jose Mendez says he will risk his job.

The 45-year-old illegal immigrant plans to skip work and march for immigrant rights on Monday for one reason: He hopes someday to become a legal resident of the United States. After six years here, he wants to visit the family he left behind in Mexico -- without fear of arrest on his way back.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 06, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 06, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Political analyst: An A Section article on April 29 about a national boycott over immigration issues misidentified a political analyst at Garcia Research. His name is Carlos Rajo, not Carlos Rojas.

Lupe Moreno, 48, a Santa Ana social worker, American citizen and advocate for immigration control, will not join in the national boycott of work, school and consumer spending. After she finishes work, she said, she will engage in her own form of activism: purchasing a $1,000 big-screen TV to “support the U.S. economy as a proud Latino American.”

And Luis Magana, a worker at the Sara Lee Bakery Group factory in Vernon, is still torn about what to do. “We want to show that our work counts. We pay taxes and help the economy,” Magana said, referring to himself and his fellow workers. “But we need our jobs too.”

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Across California and the nation, workers and employers, students and teachers, consumers and producers are grappling with what to do on May 1, long celebrated as an international workers day. Calls by immigrants rights groups for marches and boycotts have forced them to weigh the risks of losing jobs, missing school and sacrificing business revenue to demonstrate the clout of immigrants in the struggle for reform.

Among other things, many are urging Congress to pass legislation that would create a path toward legalizing most of the nation’s 11.5 million illegal immigrants, increase family visas and expand guest worker programs. The Senate is still debating such issues; the House passed a bill in December with strict enforcement provisions, such as making it felony to be in the United States without a valid visa, that many immigrant advocates consider punitive.

What began as a call for action by a small group of Los Angeles activists three months ago has gained dramatic momentum in recent days -- with the boycott even drawing support from the California Senate. Some now see it as a measure of whether the newly energized immigrant rights movement will crest to new heights, stumble or provoke anger that hurts the cause.

The outcome is difficult to predict.

As of Friday, marches, rallies and other events were scheduled in at least 68 cities across 23 states, with hundreds of thousands expected to turn out in Chicago and 50,000 in Seattle. While turnout in Eastern cities such as Washington was expected to be light, demonstrations are expected in at least 25 California cities.

In Los Angeles, police are preparing for two major marches, estimating the combined turnout at about 500,000. One, sponsored by the March 25 Coalition of mostly Latino grass-roots organizations, is scheduled to begin at noon and move from Olympic Boulevard and Broadway to City Hall.

The other, sponsored by the We Are America coalition of labor, religious and community groups, is set to begin at 4 p.m. in MacArthur Park and proceed along Wilshire Boulevard to La Brea Avenue.

The two events represent somewhat of a split in opinion, with the Olympic march organizers supporting the worker and consumer boycott, and the MacArthur park activists taking a neutral stance. Some behind this march -- including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony -- oppose the boycott as counterproductive.

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Locally and nationally, organizers expect to draw more diverse crowds into the streets.

In Chicago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and members of his Rainbow Coalition have pledged to participate. And in Los Angeles, some African American community leaders, Korean American churches and businesses, Filipino workers, South Asian immigrants, Jews and Muslims have all announced their intent to march.

Organizers are urging peaceful rallies, but reports of possible walkouts by students and strikes by truckers and cab drivers, meatpackers and hotel workers, grocers and gardeners have raised concerns of havoc.

“It is going to be devastating to us because we are going to be 30,000 containers behind” if truckers don’t show up to transport cargo at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, said Stephanie Williams, senior vice president of the California Trucking Assn.

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Some warn that any boycott may backfire.

“My personal view is that I do not think it helps,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a co-sponsor of a Senate bill that would create a guest worker program and provide a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants. “I think it may have a negative impact, but I’m not advising any Latino or Hispanic group what to do.”

Spanish-language disc jockey Renan “El Cucuy” Almendarez Coello, who helped mobilize as many as 500,000 protesters in downtown Los Angeles in March, said the boycott goes against what immigrants represent.

“We are hard workers,” he said. “We came to the United States to work. We should work Monday. Work dignifies us.”

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Immigrant rights activists, however, said they were prepared for any adverse reaction, and were counting on supporters’ passion to keep the movement strong.

“It’s amazing how it’s coming together despite the naysayers trying to undermine the effort,” said Jesse Diaz, the Latino activist who led calls for the boycott and the March 25 event in Los Angeles. “It’s the power of the people.”

A recent survey by Garcia Research, a Burbank firm specializing in Latino market research, found overwhelming support in Los Angeles for a boycott of work and consumer spending.

“After so many years of working so hard, people feel they don’t have voice,” said Carlos Rojas, the firm’s political analyst. “They see it as a way of showing the rest of society the power and dignity of the Latinos.”

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Feelings are running so high in some heavily Latino areas that many employers don’t feel comfortable not closing for the day.

In Maywood, where 78% of the city’s 30,000 residents are Latino, “they don’t want to deal with the headache of showing up for work and having fingers pointed at them,” said City Councilman Sam Pena.

For some workers, the decision of what to do -- to boycott or not, even to march or not -- fills them with fear. But many also are excited, infused with a sense of historical destiny.

“This is so we can all walk free,” said food vendor Maria Aguilar, “those of us who have papers and those who don’t.”

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The atmosphere in other U.S. cities, such as Atlanta and Houston, appeared to be different. Organizers of boycotts and demonstrations there said recent immigration raids probably would intimidate many workers into staying on the job.

Enrique Lopez, 39, owner of Carniceria Durango in the Atlanta area, said he and his five employees would take the day off. But a large rally, he said, was out of the question.

“It’s not even debatable,” said Lopez, a legal immigrant from Mexico who came to the United States in 1981. “Everyone’s afraid.”

But a resolve to take action seemed strong among many immigrants in Southern California. In Santa Ana, Socorro Murillo, 43, a janitor, and Maria del Carmen Rosa, 24, a clothing store worker, both said they would not skip the boycott or protests, no matter the consequences.

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“I think it’s important not to show up, to show that this is a special day,” said Murillo. “It’s a day that we should be remembered as Latino immigrants who took an important step to show our worth in the economy.”

“I think this is more important than a low-paying job,” said Rosa, who earns $7.25 an hour. “We need to make our voices heard. If it’s not now, when is it going to be?”

Several employers offered some relief to their largely immigrant work forces. Reflecting strong pro-immigrant activism among Korean businesses, churches and community groups, the Korean American Apparel Wholesaler Assn. asked its 1,000 members not to fire anyone who takes Monday off.

Some employers, including the Hilton and Marriott hotel chains, were requiring workers to ask for time off in advance.

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But many businesses catering to Latinos actively supported the boycott. For instance, the Liborio supermarket chain was planning to close its five Southern California stores, give workers a paid day off and encourage them to join the Monday marches, a spokesman said.

Like many workers, small businesses owned and heavily patronized by immigrants faced tough decisions.

In the bustling produce district south of downtown Los Angeles, John Rusconi wrestled with whether to close down his Santa Maura Spice and Garlic Co. on Central Avenue. He had announced earlier that the fragrant warehouse would operate as usual on Monday but was having second thoughts.

“The customers are asking if we’re sure we want to be open when no one else will be,” he said.

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Students, too, were grappling with what to do. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Roy Romer all have called on them to stay in class on Monday. In Los Angeles, Pomona and elsewhere, unexcused absences could draw fines.

Roosevelt High School student Alejandra Castro, 18, had planned to boycott school, with her mother’s blessing, but changed her mind after the district’s April 18 letter warning that students could face repercussions if they skipped classes.

“It’s my senior year,” Castro said. “All I want to do is graduate.”

Others, however, said they would take the risk.

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Roosevelt High School junior Claudia Leon won’t miss her Advanced Placement Spanish exam on May 2, but skipping school the day before means she’ll miss the review class. Like many of her friends, Leon feels that missing one day is a small price to pay for a larger cause.

“I want to support my people,” said Leon, whose family came to the United States illegally.

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Times staff writers Sam Quinones, Hemmy So, Juliet Chung and Arin Gencer in Los Angeles contributed to this report, along with Jennifer Delson in Santa Ana, Maura Reynolds in Washington, Lianne Hart in Houston, John Beckham in Chicago, Lynn Marshall in Seattle and Jenny Jarvie in Atlanta.

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