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The Job Can Wait, the Protests Can't

The nation's capital is one of many regions where immigrants go missing from the labor pool in an effort to make their presence felt.

April 11, 2006|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A tree branch that fell on the roof of a house in northern Virginia would remain there. Several hotel rooms at a Marriott in Maryland would have to be cleaned by somebody else. And the masonry work at a private school in the suburbs of Washington would come to a halt.

The laborers who do that sort of work were all at the march Monday.

In a rolling wave of protests that organizers billed as a second chapter of the civil rights movement, thousands of Latino workers in the nation's capital left their jobs, making their presence felt by their absence.

"The foreman said everybody has to show up today, but we came anyway. We have to march," said Dionicio Morales, 44, a bricklayer from Guatemala, who walked off his job with his son and two other laborers at a private school in Olney, Md. "There won't be any brickwork there today."

Morales said he came here illegally four years ago, and noted that making his status legal would probably not change his pay rate of about $22 an hour. "But I'd feel better," he said.

Crowd estimates varied; in the days before the event, organizers predicted that about 180,000 people would attend. But many who took part in the protest on the National Mall said the turnout was remarkable for a workday, as people who could little afford it gave up a day's wages to send a message that they contributed to the American community and deserved to be a full-fledged part of it.

Ali Arellano, 31, a cheese vendor in Alexandria, Va., said he couldn't make any deliveries because all the Latino markets were closed. "I can't sell anything," he said, but that worked out fine since he too attended the march.

There was one fewer shampoo assistant at the Victoria and Albert Hair Studio in a Maryland suburb. Olinda Lopez, 20, a legal immigrant from El Salvador, decided that the tone of the legislation coming out of Washington was too insulting to go unanswered.

"I lost money today and I don't really care," she said, walking arm in arm with her friends -- all dressed in white -- across Constitution Avenue, which runs along the Mall.

Karen Nieto, a 20-year-old legal immigrant from Mexico, shut her housecleaning business for the day. When she informed her clients there would be no service this day, she said, they did not complain; in fact, she said, "they supported us." She figures she lost $400 in wages.

Some of those attending the rally were paid anyway, others risked being fired, but few seemed to care. It was as if some corner had been turned, a simmering determination unleashed by federal legislation seeking to criminalize illegal immigrants and anyone who assists them.

"The one thing that unites all of them is fear. They like to keep low, don't want to cause any waves," said Alberto Benitez, 45, a law professor who heads the Immigration Clinic at George Washington University's law school and represents undocumented immigrants.

While he and his wife attended the rally, a large branch from a fallen tree remained on the roof of their Alexandria home: The tree service's foreman told them that his crew had deserted him to march.

"What I notice now is they are no longer afraid; they are insulted," said Benitez, cheering the workers' courage. "They are being called criminals and terrorists and that has changed the tenor. Just six months ago, they were in the shadows. I think these people on Capitol Hill started something they didn't anticipate."

Similar sentiment was echoed in cities nationwide. In Houston, Juan Marroquin, 37, used his sign -- "Who's your gardener?" -- to shade his daughter, a toddler, from the afternoon sun.

U.S. meat production dropped Monday as meat cutters, many of whom are Latino, stayed away from work to attend rallies, Reuters reported. The Agriculture Department estimated that cattle slaughter Monday was down 28% from a week earlier and pig slaughter fell by 16%, the news service said.

The Washington protest was by no means the largest -- dwarfed by the half a million who flooded the streets of downtown Los Angeles on March 25 -- and its message was delivered to a Capitol largely emptied by a two-week recess.

But that mattered little to people such as David and Santos Tabora, both 35, who rode a bus from the Virginia suburbs to march. He left his job as a carpenter and she gave up the $40 in wages she would have earned cleaning hotel rooms at a Courtyard by Marriott.

Still illegal immigrants after 15 years, she and her husband have done well. They own a home, and a son and a daughter attend good schools. But two older children, ages 14 and 15, remain in Honduras, raised by a grandmother.

Santos Tabora says she hasn't seen those children since they were babies.

She can't go home because she isn't sure she would be able to come back.

"It's sad," 9-year-old Maria Tabora said, translating for her parents between slurps of a snow cone.

Times staff writer Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this report.

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