By Karin Brulliard and Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 27, 2006
Disagreement over whether immigrants should walk off the job and boycott businesses Monday appeared to deepen yesterday as one immigrant group mustered support for the protest while another group cautioned immigrants that it might put their jobs at risk.
The controversy over what has been called "a day without immigrants" has exposed a rift in the immigration reform movement over the best course of action after successful demonstrations April 10 in cities across the nation.
Although groups in Dallas and Los Angeles say momentum is building for a major May 1 boycott, the coalition that organized the recent rally on the Mall has discouraged participation for fear it could lead to firings and create a negative climate as Congress debates immigration legislation.
"We don't want to be the ones telling people to risk your job, risk your well-being," said Maryland Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Wheaton), who was joined yesterday by other Latino officials at a news conference.
Rather than protest, the officials said, workers who are excused from their jobs Monday should engage in such civic activities as cleaning parks and supporting voter registration efforts.
An opposing vision for the day was presented at a second news conference called by a group that was part of the April 10 effort -- Mexicans Without Borders -- and several smaller immigrant groups. They said a walkout and business boycott would up the ante in response to a congressional deadlock on immigration reform and multi-state raids in which 1,000 illegal immigrants were arrested last week.
"We want to show that our absence will leave an emptiness that cannot be filled," said Ricardo Juarez, coordinator of Mexicans Without Borders.
Speakers at both events emphasized that although they disagree over the boycott, they remain unified in their quest for legal status for immigrants who entered the country illegally.
"Not even in the civil rights movement did you have just one strategy," said Mario Cristaldo, the general coordinator for Voting Rights for DC Coalition, one of the groups that advocated a boycott yesterday. "This is a democratic system, and people agree and disagree."
That thought was echoed by Gutierrez, who was joined by Arlington County Board member Walter Tejada (D), Prince George's County Council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), Montgomery County Council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) and officials from two Prince George's municipalities.
"I don't know why there is the expectation that all of the Hispanic community would be on the same page or act monolithically," Gutierrez said. "We are not as organized as groups on the West Coast. There is not going to be a single leader or a single organization telling people what to do. This is coming from the bottom up."
The six groups backing the boycott -- including the National Association of Indigenous Salvadorans and the Latino Media Collective -- said they think the immigrant community supports the idea. Juarez said a recent survey by his group of more than 2,000 immigrants in the Washington region found that 97 percent said they would participate in the boycott even if it meant losing their jobs.
"For us, this poll was the voice of the people," Juarez said. "We are with the people and the voice of the people."
But most unions, chambers of commerce, churches and immigrant groups in the Washington area have been lukewarm to the idea of a boycott. The National Capital Immigration Coalition, the April 10 umbrella group, is planning Monday gatherings in the District, Baltimore and Prince George's County in the late afternoon and evening so people can attend after work or school. In Virginia, activists will stand on the corners of major intersections in Herndon, Alexandria and Baileys Crossroads, waving large banners advocating immigration reform.
"We have been trying to come out to educate the American community that we are immigrants who come just to work. . . . That has been very successful for us so far," said Juan Carlos Ruiz, a coordinator with the coalition. "We believe that if there is a need for a strike, we should use it, but we don't think it should be done right now."
Jorge Ribas, president of the Western Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that his group has taken no official position on the issue but that he does not believe many Hispanic business owners will participate.
"Hispanics are too pragmatic. They are not going to shut down just for that," he said. "Most are start-up businesses, and the owner is the sole employee."
The AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union and other unions that supported the April marches for immigrant rights do not support the boycott. Unions said authorizing what amounts to a strike for a day could be considered a breach of their contract agreements.
The support of mainstream business groups for immigration reform also influences those who oppose the boycott.
"Business is on our side. I'm thinking, why hurt business?" said Manuel Hidalgo, executive director of the Latino Economic Development Corp. in Washington and a member of the immigration coalition.
Some observers said immigrants seem unsure what to do about the boycott. Giovanna Tassi, manager of Radio Latina (950 AM), said that May 1 is a constant topic of discussion on the station's morning talk shows and that many callers express enthusiasm for the idea -- until, she said, she explains that most local immigrant advocates are not behind it.
The Rev. Jose E. Hoyos, director of the Arlington Catholic Diocese's Spanish Apostolate, said he has been bombarded with calls from immigrants asking questions and seeking advice. He has told them to continue with business as usual and attend community events in the evening, he said.
"That's like we are against the system," Hoyos said of a work stoppage. "We want to be part of the system."