Protest called across nation

Local immigrants consider joining work stoppage

May 01, 2006|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTER

Sergio Vargas won't lay bricks at his construction firm today. Rosa Gauman will not change bedsheets at a downtown hotel. And loyal customers hoping to savor the mole sauce at Arcos, a Mexican restaurant in Upper Fells Point, will have to wait until tomorrow.

Immigrant workers nationwide have threatened to turn today - International Workers' Day - into a display of defiance with a work stoppage and boycott to symbolize the reliance of the U.S. economy on immigrant labor. In doing so, they will call for reform that would guarantee a path to U.S. citizenship for the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

Even in Baltimore, a city whose immigrant profile pales in contrast to burgeoning destinations such as Phoenix or established epicenters such as Los Angeles, the hope for immigration reform has propelled activism among legal and illegal immigrants alike and sparked calls for a unified immigrant voice, particularly among Latinos.

"It will be a strong show of unity," said Nicolas Ramos, owner of Arcos, who moved to the United States from Mexico 19 years ago. He plans to close Arcos as well as the construction firm he owns in Baltimore. "The solidarity will be huge. It will show everyone who we are. We are so many Latinos here. ... We have the power."

But it's unclear how cohesive today's protests will be. Most national immigrant advocacy groups are warning against the work stoppage, dubbed "A Day without an Immigrant." They say that a boycott is premature and could cause a backlash from employers. Instead, many groups are promoting "A Day of Immigrant Action," organizing after-work voter-registration events and petition drives.

The events come on the heels of April 10 demonstrations in cities nationwide in which hundreds of thousands of American-flag-waving participants protested a proposal passed in December by the U.S. House of Representatives that would make illegal immigration a felony. The measure also calls for a 700-mile fence along the Mexican-U.S. border and for penalizing employers who hire illegal laborers.

The Senate is considering that bill and other reforms, including a guest worker plan that would extend legal status and possibly a path to citizenship. Lawmakers say they hope to reach a legislative compromise by Memorial Day.

The National Capital Immigrant Coalition, responsible for the April rally in Washington, hopes to attract thousands to evening gatherings in Maryland, Washington and Virginia. CASA of Maryland, a member of the coalition, has planned a family picnic and rally from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. today in Baltimore's Patterson Park. Organizers expect to draw hundreds of mostly Latino immigrants and their allies.

Yet indecision remains among many local immigrants about whether to participate only in the early evening events or to join the work boycott.

Juan Llivichuzhca, who owns Big Brother's Marble & Granite with his brother Carlos, a countertop supplier in Baltimore, spent much of last week uncertain what to do. By Friday, he decided he would close the shop.

"We have to really think about this," he said. "Some people who are working really can't miss one day of work. They don't want to lose clients or money."

Organizers said the decision to stay home or work is a personal one. But they hope either way to send a message to Congress.

"Regardless of the decisions we make, we are all unified under the common goal of stopping [the House bill] and passing comprehensive immigration reform," said Eliza Leighton, a spokeswoman at CASA of Maryland.

Vargas, the bricklayer, who eight years ago took the perilous journey across the mountainous California-Mexico border, said some of his fellow construction laborers are scared that refusing to work may cost them their jobs or get them deported.

"We are lucky we have a good boss; we asked, and he said, `Take the day off,'" he said of himself and his brother Eric Vargas during lunch last week at Tortilleria and Tacos in Fells Point. "But some people are scared."

Tortilleria and Tacos' U.S.-born owners, Melissa and Robert Willingham, plan to close the restaurant in support of their immigrant employees, providing a paid day off.

"I think they need to make this statement," said Melissa Willingham. "And the best thing we could do was offer support."

The Vargas brothers - among Maryland's 225,000 to 275,000 illegal immigrants, as estimated by the Pew Hispanic Center - are less than optimistic about the outcome of a work stoppage.

"Why do it for one day?" said Eric Vargas. "It's not going to do anything. Many days, a week, a month - that could have a huge impact."

But Ramos, the restaurant and construction firm owner, says he believes that shutting his doors today will make a difference, albeit symbolic. When he arrived in San Antonio from Nueva Rosita, Mexico, 19 years ago, he painted houses, earning $3.50 an hour.

In 1986, he benefited from an amnesty program that was promoted to stem the tide of illegal immigrants - a promise that has gone unrealized.

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