Boycotting the boycott

Last week, the Arizona organizers of a massive pro-immigrant rally turned thumbs down on the call to join a national job and spending boycott set for Monday.

On further reflection, and after workplace raids, they changed their minds and now support what is being billed as a coast-to-coast “Day Without Immigrants,” an unprecedented effort to demonstrate the economic fuel such workers contribute to America’s economy both as consumers and producers.

But in Dayton, Ohio, the reverse happened. An activist immigration coalition at first endorsed the boycott, but now does not.

Such is the ambivalence evident across the country just days before “El Gran Paro Americano 2006” — the “Great American Boycott” — is supposed to leave job sites, schoolrooms and cash registers empty of millions of Latino and other immigrants, along with dollars.

“We’re still not sure what we’re going to do,” a staffer at the Latin-American Coalition in Charlotte, N.C., said — a comment common to other groups elsewhere.

The one-day boycott — which coincides with international “May Day” workers-rights celebrations long associated with socialists, communists and others on the far-left bank of the political spectrum — is also intended to protest hard-edged immigration reforms being weighed now in Congress.

“This is an issue that all working people and progressive organizations must embrace,” said an Internet manifesto of the International Action Center, which is organizing a rally and march Monday in New York City.

The boycott comes within weeks of hundreds of demonstrations in big and small cities across the country. These events drew millions of mostly Latino people in what some call the birth of a new era of activism by a population segment that has long stayed in the background.

One reason for the huge turnout was the weeks of promotion conducted by Spanish-language radio stations, grassroots groups and labor unions. In contrast, the planned May 1 boycott has not been universally embraced.

Some leaders, such as Jaime Contreras, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-area’s National Capital Immigration Coalition, said a boycott was an extreme measure that could produce a backlash and potentially result in the loss of jobs for those who participate.

Indeed, many anti-immigration Internet sites now carry calls for “gringo” Americans to spend even more money than usual on that day. “To the Wal-Mart, comrades,” columnist Mac Johnson implored on the online Human Events weekly magazine site. (

The Catholic Church is urging students to attend school and workers to go to their jobs that day, and then gather at rallies later. Univision, the nation’s largest Spanish-language TV network, helped spread the word for the first rallies, but now is under attack by activists for not promoting this event. Internal bickering between radical and mainstream groups also is intruding.

In Dayton, Ohio, Presbyterian Rev. Jane Ruiz said initial enthusiasm for the boycott by immigrant-oriented churches and other groups in her area was largely tamped down because of the widespread fear of lost jobs and immigration crackdowns.

Now, backers of the cause are being encouraged to refrain from spending money, but to miss work only with employer permission. “We’ve changed our strategy. We don’t want people to be fired,” Ruiz said.

In Phoenix, the “We Are America” coalition also changed its strategy. At first, the coalition panned the boycott as too big a sacrifice for workers who had already lost pay when as many as 250,000 attended an enormous demonstration last month.

Then came a spate of raids in recent days by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Arizona and 25 other states that swept up nearly 1,200 illegal workers.

But instead of making the Phoenix-area immigrants more fearful, it has spawned a sense of resolve, said Roberto Reveles, president of the coalition, which now endorses the boycott.

“People are saying, ‘We’ve got to stand up against this,’ ” he said.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)