By Juan Diaz
What Happened on Feb 16th?
“A Day Without Immigrants” on February 16th, 2017 signaled the awaking of a sleeping giant – the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants1 who are one of the most exploited and oppressed labor force in this country. The day had thousands of immigrants nationwide not showing up to work in protest against the mass deportations and brutal offensive that Trump is continuing (and Obama started). The immigrant rights movement showed in 2006 – after threats of building a wall and mass deportations were made by Republicans (with the Democrats’ passive approval2)- that they will not continue to sit back and allow the brutalization of their community and build a mass strike and work stoppage that was able to stop the anti-immigrant legislation. This working class force was then co-opted by the Democrats and had been quiet and bought up, but with Trump’s win and brutal offensive, they are waking up and building the groundwork for another big work stoppage and mass protest – with May 1st as the big horizon.
February 16th saw many immigrants and their allies staying away from work, not sending their children to school, not buying products, and many showed up to rallies, marches and protests in some of the major immigrant hub cities (like Chicago, Minneapolis, NYC, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Charlotte, North Carolina, etc. 3). Many majority immigrant operated businesses and restaurants in these immigrant regions closed. Though participation was uneven and sporadic throughout the nation (partly due to the decentralized way the day’s protest was organized, among other reasons), it was a success in attempting to show U.S. consumers what an economy without immigrant labor would mean for the services and goods many rely on.4
A message and flyer had been appearing after Trumps inauguration in social media and spread around through What’s App and as Trump’s exec orders came in, through classrooms, restaurants, radio shows, shops, and other spaces where immigrants and undocumenteds frequent. In terms of the form of how Feb 16th’s A Day Without Immigrants (ADWI) was organized, it was indicative to see that in a number of cases, business owners abided “by their staffs’ wishes, after holding votes to decide whether to open.” 5
One of the limitations of the way AWDI was organized was that there was no central or big organizing body that was coordinating or uniting the day of protest, but you could get a good sense of the numbers by the amount of immigrant majority businesses and restaurants that were closed in certain major cities.
It’s a travesty that most major labor unions didn’t come out to support and help build the protests. It was a lost opportunity for them to link the weakened union movement to the immigrant rights struggle- so as to link workers’ rights and immigrants rights being part of the same united struggle. This would’ve been important in unions where many are immigrants and/or undocumented (like Janitors, hotel workers, service workers, construction and other sectors).
It’s also important to point out that the Democratic Party’s apparatus and leaders weren’t calling for support for the protest nor came out for most of the protests. The plus of this is that the DP at least didn’t try to co-opt the mobilizations. It’s good and important for the undocumented and immigrants rights community keep it’s class independence to the protest, from DP whom will try to co-opt the protests leadership and take credit in the future for electoral purposes.
Just before the Feb 16th protests happened, the undocumented community had faced one of the first big raids in Trumps era, when some 680 people had been detained in raids across the U.S.6 . Even though , the Department of Homeland Security had called those raids “routine, saying they targeted people who had criminal convictions.”7, the raids had still brought a lot of shock, fear and alertness given that they also came after Trump had passed some other xenophobic, racist and discriminatory executive orders – like the Muslim Ban”, his plans on moving forward with the building of the Mexican border wall, increasing the funding and amount of border patrol police, giving state and local police forces more jurisdiction and power in aiding Trump’s attacks on undocumented communities8.
The types and places that were impacted just go to prove that the “more than eight million undocumented immigrants in the US workforce… “make up a disproportionate number of workers in several industries, including construction ,food services9”, and hotels.
Another factor that explains why the particular cities had bigger protests was that nearly half of the 12+ million undocumented in the U.S. live in the 11 states targeted.10 Though there were some small businesses and restaurants in Los Angeles that had workers participate for ADWI, not many participated in California (like SF Bay Area).
An action by immigrants and muslims on Feb. 2 had likely influenced ADWI’s success when “Yemeni grocery stores closed throughout New York City11” in protest of Trump’s travel ban executive order had influenced undocumented workers to take some workplace based action. There was also a massive #DayWithoutImmigrants march and demonstration on Feb. 13th in Milwaukee, which around 10,000 people. This demonstration protested against President Donald Trump and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, whom the undocumented community felt that President Trump and Sheriff Clarke will have police officers detain legal and illegal immigrants12.
Trump’s administration close ties to the deportation apparatuses and far-right anti-immigrant figures contribute to his unpopularity amongst undocumented workers: his presidential candidacy was endorsed (a first in their history) to the National Border Patrol Council13 and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is also a big ICE advocate- Bannon was the head of the right-wing Breitbart News, (the website that publishes ICE leaks).
There were actions held in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Tennessee, Washington, D.C and other major cities. In some cities, like in Washington, D.C. schools had been closed for the day. Students had organized walkouts on schools or they stayed home. Of note, thousands of students had walked out/ not attended schools “in places like Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Charlotte, North Carolina.” 14
The U.S, Senate cafeteria in DC had also been shut down, and there were strategic and important workplaces shut down, like the “Arkansas poultry workers, Brooklyn warehouse workers and house cleaners, [&] Twin Cities roofers.15 You even saw that McDonald’s restaurants across the United States were closed “because immigrants refused to go to work.”16
Given the lack of organization, it was amazing to see that in certain cities, with just less than two days notice, thousands had come out. For example. over 3,000 showed up at Chicago’s Union Park and in downtown St. Paul (Minneapolis),there were 3,000-4,000 people at the state Capitol by 1 p.m.—even though no rally had been called17”. In the case of Portland, Oregon, local Latino radio stations announced the strike and encouraged listeners to participate18.
Another of the downsides of ADWI not being a national and organized strike is that it opened up some individual workers to retaliation for their bosses, though the number reported so far only seems to be under 200 nationwide. There are media reports that “bricklayers in Commerce City, Colorado, boat manufacturing workers in Lexington, South Carolina, and employees of a painting company in Nashville, Tennessee” were fired19. In a good sign of solidarity, some neighboring restaurants and businesses offered jobs to those fired.
Besides the layoffs reported so far, Trump’s Homeland Security retaliated the day after on Feb. 17th when a White House leak came out that they were considering “mobilizing as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants.”20 This leak dominated the news the following days and it confirmed earlier leaks that Trump’s administration was moving to greatly expand the Department of Homeland Security’s authority to deport undocumented immigrants and to increase the number of immigration and Border Patrol agents by 15,000. And on Feb. 22, more news of new rules issued, almost any undocumented person in the country could be detained and deported, even if they have never committed a crime. “A traffic violation or mere suspicion of committing a crime could now be grounds for deportation. “Any immigrant who cannot prove they have been in the United States for over two years could be deported without a hearing. The memos also call for the prosecution of parents who seek to reunite their family by using smugglers to bring their children into the country.”21 In move to help keep the undocumented divided amongst class and age lines, Dreamers22 for now will keep their protections from deportations.
Feb 16th’s ADWI was a good first step to rebuild a mass immigrant rights movement in this country, and moving forward, March 8th’s Women’s Strike is being seen as the next movement build action, with May 1st’s International Worker’s Day being the next big Day Without Immigrants. The immigrant rights movement and its allies should use the momentum for May day being built by the general anti-Trump national sentiment.
There are already organizations that have issued a call for a national Day without Immigrants on May 1, so far these include Voces in Milwaukee, SEIU-United Service Workers West and the Women’s March in California, and the national Cosecha network23 and we can build on these to get more endorsements and commitments. National public opinion polls are showing that majority of people in the U.S. support the rights of the undocumented to remain24.
It can learn from the strengths and limitations of Feb 16th’s demonstrations and organize things more centrally and continue the grassroots elements. It’s important to continue to keep organizational and programmatic independence from the Democratic Party (DP) politicians and organizations. We should contest base and rank and file DP members and we don’t need to work inside the DP to do that.
It’s crucial that the movement put pressure on unions and hold the labor leadership accountable since there are many undocumented workers in unions and in the wider labor force. While the AFL-CIO and labor unions keep silent during Trump’s offensive to immigrants and workers, rank and file workers in their unions should put forward resolutions and build caucuses to push for their unions to come out in full force to support May day’s activities.
At the community, school, and neighborhood level, the undocumented community can build on the the resistance networks being built across many major cities25 by workers centers and community groups against the deportations and attacks to immigrants. There are also organizations and communities pushing for sanctuary (cities that follow certain procedures that shelters illegal immigrants),26 campuses, cities and states that should be supported and expanded.
The movement’s goal, in this year’s 11th year anniversary since 2006’s almost general strike May 1st, is to try to approach the scale and power of those massive workplace and school work stoppages and strikes. The bigger the protests and work stoppages, the less chances employers and bosses can retaliate against individual workers. May 1st should also carry as part its demands and strategy to try to win over the jobs of those workers fired in February’s actions.
13Which represents about 17,000 Border Patrol agents
22Immigrants who came to the United States as children and have since received permission to live and work in the United States under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.