A show of diversity in Baltimore

May 02, 2006|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTER

Pedro Reyes, a paralegal at a firm specializing in immigration, said he is weary of turning away most would-be clients.

Illegal immigrants who are unfamiliar with the nation's convoluted legal system are shattered, Reyes said yesterday, when he explains to them that they are ineligible for what they crave most: a green card and the privileges of legal residency it holds.

With a Colombian flag draped from his belt loop and an American flag held high above his head, Reyes joined demonstrators at Baltimore's Patterson Park, urging reform that would guarantee a path to U.S. citizenship for the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

Beneath the setting sun, a jubilant crowd of several hundred descended on the park chanting "Si se puede" ("Yes we can"). Speakers at the rally included the head of the Baltimore NAACP, religious leaders and several City Council members who presented a resolution in support of immigration reform that would include a path to legal status.

"It is very frustrating," said Reyes, who has legal status after entering the United States illegally 13 years ago seeking asylum from political violence in his native Colombia. "All they want to know is how to become legal. They want to work, they want to raise their families."

Since a huge mobilization effort April 10 to protest congressional immigration proposals that would make felons out of illegal immigrants, urgency has swept immigrant communities in established destinations such as Chicago and in emerging enclaves elsewhere.

Yesterday was a first for Baltimore, a city that has grown in recent years as an immigrant destination. Led by Latino advocacy groups, the event at Patterson Park surprised many bystanders with its number and diversity of participants.

The demonstration was part of an effort intended to prove how the nation's illegal laborers keep the U.S. economy churning by picking the produce that ends up on grocery store shelves and laying the bricks in construction boomtowns such as Baltimore.

But what was initially billed as a mass work stoppage and boycott called "A Day Without An Immigrant" appeared to have a minimum impact in Maryland.

Many employers offered their immigrant workers the day off.

Some at the rally wondered whether the impact of the work stoppage was hindered by a failure of national advocacy groups to agree whether yesterday's demonstrations should include a strike. National leaders urged against a work stoppage, promoting instead a series of after-work community meetings, rallies and voter-registration drives that they called "A Day of Immigrant Action."

Meanwhile, widespread rumors of raids by immigration enforcement authorities left many immigrant communities paralyzed with fear, said Eliza Leighton, a spokeswoman for immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland.

"It's unclear if people are not out and about as much as normal because they are participating in the work stoppage, or if they are just terrified," Leighton said.

Mark Bastan, acting special agent in charge of the Baltimore office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that the rumors were false and that the agency doesn't have the manpower to go after individuals who are not criminals.

There was a noticeable absence of shoppers and diners around Baltimore's burgeoning Hispanic business district in Fells Point, where lights were dim and signs reading "Closed" hung in many of the Latino-owned groceries. Around the region, small landscaping businesses and restaurants reported a reduced employee presence.

Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, said there would be little impact to the state's economy from a one-day work stoppage.

Further, he said, companies knew in advance about the rallies and many took measures. Salisbury-based Perdue Farms Inc. added a workday Saturday to make up for shutting three poultry processing plants on the Eastern Shore yesterday. Nationally, eight of 14 Perdue plants were closed yesterday.

To avoid being caught short-handed, many restaurants with foreign-born staff negotiated with employees early on about the impending rallies.

The Restaurant Association of Maryland informed its 3,000 members early last week of a probable work stoppage and boycott. Employees of Jasper's restaurants in Greenbelt, Crofton, Largo and Germantown were sent a letter a few weeks ago - in English and Spanish - letting them know they could take the day off to observe the boycott as long as they found someone to work in their place.

The company, which has about 600 workers, also offered overtime pay to any non-immigrant employee willing to take fellow workers' shifts.

"We in the restaurant association have been battling for many of the same things they are," said Fred Rosenthal, Jasper's president.

For some at the rally, the threat alone of a work stoppage showed the strength of a growing immigrant community.

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