Immigrants around the U.S. stayed home from work and school Thursday to demonstrate how important they are to America’s economy, and many businesses closed in solidarity in a nationwide protest called A Day Without Immigrants.
The boycott was aimed squarely at President Donald Trump’s efforts to step up deportations, build a wall at the Mexican border and close the nation’s doors to many travelers.
In Umatilla and Morrow County, where the U.S. census estimates 9,900 foreign-born residents out of a population of 87,000, the demonstration was perhaps felt most powerfully at schools.
Sixty-five percent of Umatilla School District students are Latino, and superintendent Heidi Sipe said 39 percent of the district’s students were absent Thursday. One classroom at McNary Heights Elementary only had six students.
“Honestly, we’ve also had a number of students expressing concern about (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) coming to school,” Sipe said. “They always ask, ‘Are they going to take us?’”
Sipe said they tell students that school is a place to focus on learning and that there are laws that help it stay that way. The district is not even legally allowed to ask students about their immigration status.
Sipe said she also had more staff missing than usual but does not know their reasons for being absent.
At the Hermiston School District — which is 50 percent Hispanic —1,438 students were absent on Thursday — a quarter of the district’s population. Of those students, 1,183 were Hispanic, according to district communications officer Maria Duron.
In Boardman schools, where more than three-quarters of all students are Hispanic, 409 of the 1,082 students were absent — about 38 percent of total enrollment.
Attendance rates were slightly higher at Irrigon schools, though still well below average. About 28 percent — 242 of 853 enrolled students — were absent.
Dirk Dirksen, superintendent of the Morrow County School District which includes Boardman and Irrigon, said average attendance usually hovers around 94 percent.
Though Dirksen said he did not hear specifically from students or parents whether the protests played a role, the connection was difficult to ignore.
“There’s a lot of talk right now, as there is nationally, as to the immigrant status,” Dirksen said. “It’s part of people’s lives right now. It’s what they’re dealing with.”
In the Milton-Freewater school district that is 56 percent Latino, superintendent Rob Clark said he saw a noticeable drop in attendance. Clark said elementary school students started telling teachers Wednesday that they wouldn’t go to school the next day, and Thursday bore that out across all grade levels.
Out of a total enrollment of about 1,750, Clark estimated 400-450 students were absent Thursday, up from the 50-75 absentees the school district experiences on an average day.
Clark said he expects the students who missed time to make up their work, but he did not condemn the movement.
“I haven’t walked in their shoes,” he said. “I’m not here to judge.”
In Hermiston, several businesses that employ immigrants were closed for the day, including Fiesta Foods. The grocery store had a sign noting the store was closed “in support of the community” and would resume normal operations Friday.
On Main Street, the Mexican bakery Panderia Yasmine was locked during normal business hours, as was Tienda de Princessa across the street. Mercado San Juan on Hartley Avenue was dark with no explanation, and on Hermiston Avenue Trina’s Mexican Food had a sign saying the restaurant would not be open all day.
At the United Farm Workers offices, Pacific Northwest Regional director Victoria Ruddy said that she knew some farm workers who were immigrants had chosen to work on Thursday despite the protest, but she hoped that just having fewer immigrants working across the country would help people realize how important immigrants are to farms and food production.
“Every meal you put on your table, an immigrant probably helped put it there,” she said. “We all rely on those workers to feed our families. We really do.”
At Boardman Foods, 30 employees didn’t show up to work on Thursday. Several local food processors did not respond to requests for comment, but on social media some employees said that many of their coworkers did not show up as well.
Some citizens were upset by the ban and the inconvenience it caused.
Forest Hunt, a Power City resident, said he was picked up by a shuttle service to buy groceries in town, and was surprised to find Fiesta Foods closed.
“They didn’t put it in the paper, and that’s the only way I’d know about it,” he said. “It’s puzzling if they don’t care about the inconvenience to customers.”
Hunt said he had been part of unions before, and understood the need to get people’s attention, but was upset the store didn’t alert shoppers ahead of time.
“I just thought it was a low blow not to let customers know,” he said.
Some businesses around Hermiston stayed open. La Carreta on Southwest 11th Avenue was operating as usual. Owner Armando Rodriguez said he hadn’t been aware of the movement beforehand, so he didn’t plan to close his business for the day.
“I will do it in the future if I know,” he said. “There’s lots of things going on with the new president. We don’t know what will happen.”
Gregoria Castillo, who works at the clothing store Novedades Castillo on Southwest 11th Avenue, said their business stayed open to assist others. The business also converts money and sells airplane tickets.
“We’ve had many people coming in today,” she said. “They need tickets to send to people in other places.”
Around lunchtime on Thursday, Castillo said she had seen about seven people come in to purchase tickets, which was more than usual.
Jonathan Shaklee, a Kennewick-based immigration lawyer, said he has noticed something of a cognitive dissonance for many people surrounding Trump’s immigration policies.
“I talked to an employer 30 minutes ago,” he said. “He has multiple undocumented employees, and he’s very concerned about them. There are a number of employers who think their employees are ‘the good guys,’ and want to keep them here. And at the same time, (the owners) are Trump supporters.”
He said he’s seen people get detained for all kinds of minor crimes, such as a traffic infraction that occurred many years prior. He said those are not the people Trump says he wants to get deport.
“Those ‘felons’ oftentimes have felonies for illegal re-entry, like if they went home to visit a parent and get caught coming back,” he said. “There’s a big difference between the gang members, drug traffickers and abusers, and the ‘felons’ who have one offense, like a DUI from when they were 20.”
He added that a lot of employers who feel protective of their own employees don’t seem to see the connection.
“They’re not unique, and their workers aren’t unique,” he said. “Most of the 12 million people are like that.”
Around the country
Organizers of the national movement said they expected thousands to participate or otherwise show support.
It was unclear how many people participated, but in many cities, the actions were disruptive, if not halting. More actions are being planned for May 1 — known as May Day, the internationally recognized holiday honoring workers.
“I fear every day whether I am going to make it back home. I don’t know if my mom will make it home,” said Hessel Duarte, a 17-year-old native of Honduras who lives in Austin, Texas, with his family and skipped class at his high school to take part in one of several rallies held around the country. Duarte said he arrived in the U.S. at age 5 to escape gang violence.
The protest even reached into the U.S. Capitol, where a Senate coffee shop was among the eateries that were closed as employees did not show up at work.
Organizers appealed to immigrants from all walks of life to take part, but the effects were felt most strongly in the restaurant industry, which has long been a first step up the economic ladder for newcomers to America with its many jobs for cooks, dishwashers and servers. Restaurant owners with immigrant roots of their own were among those acting in solidarity with workers.
Expensive restaurants and fast-food joints alike closed, some perhaps because they had no choice, others because of what they said was sympathy for their immigrant employees. Sushi bars, Brazilian steakhouses, Mexican eateries and Thai and Italian restaurants all turned away lunchtime customers.
“The really important dynamic to note is this is not antagonistic, employee-against-employer,” said Janet Murguia, president of the Hispanic rights group National Council of La Raza. “This is employers and workers standing together, not in conflict.”
She added: “Businesses cannot function without immigrant workers today.”
At a White House news conference held as the lunch-hour protests unfolded, Trump boasted of his border security measures and immigration arrests of hundreds of people in the past week, saying, “We are saving lives every single day.”
Since the end of 2007, the number of foreign-born workers employed in the U.S. has climbed by nearly 3.1 million to 25.9 million; they account for 56 percent of the increase in U.S. employment over that period, according to the Labor Department.
Roughly 12 million people are employed in the restaurant industry, and immigrants make up the majority — up to 70 percent in places like New York and Chicago, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which works to improve working conditions. An estimated 1.3 million in the industry are immigrants in the U.S. illegally, the group said.
Jayati Ramakrishnan, Jade McDowell, Antonio Sierra and George Plaven contributed to this story.