May Day is immigration rights heyday

by Jordan Green

The immigrant rights movement hit Greensboro like a wave breaking on the shore May 1, the day traditionally celebrated as the workers holiday around the world.

The day of work stoppages, student absences and consumer boycotts struck the Piedmont Triad, as it did hundreds of other population centers across the country, little more than a month after mass demonstrations broke out in major cities like Los Angeles and Dallas, and rippled with startling efficacy to North Carolina towns like Siler City and Burlington, where Hispanic labor increasingly undergirds the meatpacking, construction and agricultural industries.

From schools to workplaces and public plazas, demonstrators spurred innumerable conversations about what it means to live in the United States as an illegal immigrant and what that sector’s presence means for the future of work in this country. The day of action raised the volume of discourse on talk radio, where opinions among whites and citizens of other ethnicities generally ranged from ambivalence to outrage. Greensboro businesses seemed to take their immigrant employees’ economic actions in stride, making arrangements to cushion the impact.

Hispanic immigrants served notice in Greensboro and other parts of the country that they would no longer be invisible. Many of them openly acknowledged their illegal status and expressed willingness to bear the consequences of potential retaliation from employers.

‘“I didn’t work today,’” said Raul Lopez, a house painter who wore a patriotic T-shirt showing an American eagle wrapped in a Stars and Stripes bandanna. ‘“Maybe we have some consequences, but this is more important. We want to work legal ‘— all the people.’”

He stood proudly on Greene Street near Governmental Plaza, where about 1,500 demonstrated. Lopez’s handmade sign read, ‘“We did not come to do harm to this nation or hurt the country that gives us work,’” on one side, backed with: ‘“We came to make the USA grow.’”

‘“Bill Clinton in 2000 he say we can give amnesty to immigrants,’” Lopez said, and pointed to a T-shirt draped around his nephew’s torso that commemorated the fall of the World Trade Center. ‘“After this, no more; they close it to us. We work seven days a week. We don’t understand why Americans say there are no jobs here. We see a lot of jobs and not a lot of people.’”

Other demonstrators displayed more cognizance of the pain experienced by some native-born workers, who have watched some jobs move overseas and others pay less than they once did.

‘“There’s a huge demand for the kind of workers who are willing to do the work for the pay they offer,’” said Jose Torres, a 32-year-old Bristol-Meyers Squibb employee. ‘“I went to school to get a business degree; I know. The construction jobs that should be paying twenty-two dollars an hour, they’re paying eight dollars an hour. You and me are benefiting from their labor. We should be paying a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for a new house; instead we’re paying eighty thousand dollars. Grapes are ninety-nine cents a pound. They should be three dollars a pound.’”

Torres’ spiky black hair was flecked with grey, bearing testimony to a life of transition and aspiration.

‘“Every one of us knows someone who is trying to get those papers to work here legally,’” he said. ‘“I came here when I was thirteen years old, and I came to contribute to society. I’ve been here for twenty years. I came to make this a better country. I love this country.’”

Handmade signs that rose from the crowd of demonstrators clad in white shirts, many of them waving small American flags, conveyed messages both sentimental and practical.

‘“Yes, we fell in love with America too,’” read one.

‘“Let immigrants get papers,’” another argued.

One referred to House Resolution 4437, the bill that would make criminals out of people who stay in the United States illegally, lamenting, ‘“It will tear our families apart.’”

Unlike some other cities, where demonstrations were joined by immigrants of other nationalities, participation in Greensboro was solidly Hispanic. A smattering of whites joined the rally at Governmental Plaza out of either support or curiosity, but few African Americans were seen.

One black community leader reached across the divide between citizen and non-citizen, between black and Hispanic.

‘“Once again you are demonstrating the beauty and necessity of letting the movement get in your feet and letting your feet get in the street,’” said Rev. Nelson Johnson of Faith Community Church.

A cheer erupted from the crowd before Johnson’s Spanish translator could begin.

‘“It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you live,’” Johnson said. ‘“The whole world is the Lord’s and we affirm the dignity of all people. As we commit to non-violent struggle we must never allow ourselves to be pitted against each other. We must fight for good jobs for all ‘— black, brown and white.’”Johnson was not alone in framing the treatment of illegal immigrants as a moral issue. Organizers said Hispanic community leaders publicized the protests and boycotts through e-mail and word of mouth in less than two weeks. Leaflets were distributed at Mexican groceries. Deborah Kelly, executive director of Greensboro’s Centro de Accion Latino, said churches ‘—’ the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte in particular ‘—’ played a prominent role in getting out the word.

Among local churches represented on the roster of speakers were Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church and Iglesia Nueva Vida, both in Greensboro, and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in High Point.

‘“We declare a strong opposition to any law that would prevent us from supporting you,’” said Rev. Chantal McKinney, a third-generation Mexican American who is the priest at St. Mary’s. ‘“We don’t want anyone not seeking medical help when medical help is needed. We don’t want anyone hiding in fear.’”

The Greensboro rally was heavy with religious pageantry, with demonstrators clasping raised hands together to say the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish near the end of the program. A poster advertising a rally in Burlington the previous day that hung on the front of stores in Mexican commercial sections of Greensboro quoted from the Bible.

The words taken from the Book of Deuteronomy instructed, ‘“And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.’”

Many Mexican-owned stores, particularly those that cater to an immigrant clientele, remained closed on May 1. They included La Milagrosa Tienda Hispana y Joyeria and Muebleria La Familia on High Point Road, along with a solid bloc of stores across town on Summit Avenue near Rankin Road. With the exception of Mi Pueblo Mexican Restaurant, the cluster of shops ‘— among them a money transfer store, a bridal shop, a bakery and a boot store ‘— that arc around a corner of Holden Road and Spring Garden Street, conducted no business.

The work stoppage seemed to have mixed results in the construction and food service industries. The immigrants’ economic impact might have been softened by make-up work plans and advance scheduling, but the symbolism of their statement reverberated through the city.

Fifteen to 20 employees, mostly plumbers and concrete finishers, stayed out at the construction site for the new Harris Teeter grocery store on Friendly Avenue, said superintendent Rick Sloop for general contractor Clancy & Theys. He gestured across the lot, where Hoar Construction is building the smaller buildings surrounding the anchor store.

‘“As you can see, it’s pretty empty over there too,’” he said.

Danny Townsend of Hoar Construction contradicted that assessment.

‘“It’s not affecting us at all,’” he said. ‘“Everything’s going as planned. Okay?’”

Groups of foremen stood in huddles of two and three talking while a group of African-American bricklayers prepared for work, and white truck drivers came and went from the lot.

At UNCG’s new studio arts building, New Atlantic Construction was faring somewhat better. Superintendent Larry Tate said only two of his thirty-some employees had chosen to stay out after he gave them the option of working the previous Saturday to make up for their absence. He planned to end the workday early so his employees could participate in demonstrations.

‘“Everybody needs a chance to express their rights,’” he said. ‘“A good group of guys we’ve got here.’”

Jack Bott, an assistant manager at the K&W Cafeteria on Northline Avenue, said only about five of his employees scheduled time off and none failed to show up for work without prior notice. The work stoppage was a topic of conversation between the African-American cashier and a line of elderly black patrons waiting to pay their checks after lunch.

The effect of the day of action on Guilford County Schools also appeared to be mixed. At least two teachers supported students who wanted to express themselves by staying out of school.

Deb Greene, who teaches English-to-Speakers-of-Other-Languages at Western Guilford High School in Greensboro, said the majority of her Hispanic students stayed out, while students from Thailand, the Marshall Islands, Iran and other non-Hispanic countries attended classes.

‘“On Friday they were so distracted I couldn’t get them to do any work,’” she said. ‘“They were really excited.

‘“I talked with them about it beforehand,’” she added. ‘“I didn’t explicitly state how administration would handle it. I recommended that they get a note from their parents. Then I don’t think they can be punished. I told them they are taking a risk but that they should do what they felt they needed to do.’”

Caroline Clark, a Spanish teacher at High Point Central High School, said only one of her students stayed out. She had told her students that she would refrain from marking them absent if they didn’t come, but administration would likely not excuse them.

Spokesman Chad Campbell said the district made no exceptions to its attendance policy for students who boycotted classes.

‘“It was a very normal school day, which is what we expected,’” he said. ‘“Obviously, we want our children in class.’”

President Dan Lynch said because of other priorities the Greensboro Economic Development Partnership has not attempted to size up the economic impact of Hispanic immigrants’ absence from stores, worksites and schools.

‘“From a local perspective I’ve not had the chance to sit down and calculate the effect of that work stoppage on our area,’” he said. ‘“That particular group is a very important part of our labor force and we have to find a way as a nation to resolve this as quickly as we can.’”

Whether Hispanic immigrants’ newfound boldness helps cement their place in American society or prompts a backlash of restrictive new legislation is yet to be determined, but with the distinctly optimistic tone of protests so far organizers seem to be betting on the former outcome.

‘“I’d like to call on elected officials and the faith-based sector to stand with us so we can give something worthwhile to the immigrant community that works day in and day out,’” said Mauricio Castro of the NC Latino Coalition. ‘“We don’t want to be in the shadows; we want to be in the light. We don’t want to hide; we want to be in the open.’”

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