On ‘Day Without Immigrants,’ call to embrace Austin workers, families


Highlights

Restaurant employees skipped work, students skipped school, and protesters marched to make their point.

Protests around the nation sought to call attention to the economic and social contributions of immigrants.

Noemi Covarrubias finished exhorting the protesters gathered on the south steps of the Capitol and passed the mic, the defiance draining from her voice as she stepped aside and spoke about the labor her immigrant father has put into Austin.

On drives, “He’ll say, ‘Look! I helped build that, I helped build that,” said Covarrubias, 17.

Her father and mother entered the United States illegally 23 years ago. Now, with President Donald Trump’s election and a new effort to detain undocumented immigrants in Austin, Covarrubias’ parents find themselves in an ironic situation, she said: having helped build a major city in a nation that is increasingly hostile to them. Her mother won’t go outside for fear of being detained.

“Donald Trump may be president, but this is our country,” said Covarrubias, who is a U.S. citizen. “This is our city, and on one’s going to come take it from us. No one’s going come take our parents, no one’s going to come take our brothers, and no one’s going to ruin our families.”

Thursday was a “Day Without Immigrants,” a day of protests around the nation to call attention to the economic and social contributions of immigrants and to respond to Trump’s efforts to step up deportations, build a wall at the Mexican border and close the nation’s doors to many travelers.

Fine restaurants in New York, San Francisco and the nation’s capital closed for the day, according to Associated Press reports. Grocery stores, food trucks, coffee shops, diners and taco joints in such cities as Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston shut down. The protest even reached into the U.S. Capitol, where a Senate coffee shop was among the eateries that were closed as employees didn’t show up at work.

In Austin, an afternoon march that initially drew dozens of protesters eventually merged with an earlier one that drew hundreds, many of their voices tinged with dissent and desperation.

National 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. More than 35 Austin restaurants stayed closed Thursday — some whose owners wished to demonstrate what Austin would be missing without them, others who wanted to show solidarity with that cause, and yet others who apparently didn’t have enough staff to open.

Chef Otto Phan of Kyoten Sushiko only has two employees, neither of whom are Latino, but he said his closure was an acknowledgment of many of his former peers and informal mentors.

“I will always have much love for the mentors that got me here,” Phan said in a text message to American-Statesman restaurant critic Matthew Odam. Those include some of the country’s most prominent chefs, he said, “But I’ve had mentoring from a lot of ‘Pablos’ along the way that have played an equal role in my development. I wouldn’t be here today without their kindness.”

At a Chuy’s restaurant in Round Rock, someone left a note in an employee area written in Spanish that said: “Chuy’s is a great place to work and we need your support. If you choose not to work on Thursday, we will put their names in a cap and the names that are selected will lose their work.” The note sparked online indignation, to which Chuy’s replied that the restaurant hadn’t posted the note, its author remained unidentified, the shifts were covered and no employee would be disciplined for participating in Thursday’s protests.

Many Austin-area schools also reported an uptick in absences.

Schools with large Latino student populations in particular saw a sharp decline in attendance. In Austin and Manor, several teachers reported that just a handful of students attended some classes. In the Del Valle school district, more than 36 percent of students were absent. About 40 percent of the students in the KIPP Austin charter schools were absent. And more than 400 of Pickle Elementary’s 637 students were absent.

“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 with his family. He skipped class at his high school with his family to take part in the march, according to The Associated Press. He said he arrived in the U.S. at 5 as his family fled from gang violence.

At 10 a.m. Thursday, hundreds of people, including Duarte and Covarrubias, gathered at Austin City Hall and marched through downtown to the Capitol and back. Along the way they chanted, “Say it loud. Say it clear. Immigrants are welcome here” as they passed throngs of cheering spectators.

They brought a party atmosphere to the Capitol grounds, as some danced to blaring cumbia music. Some held up signs such as “we need a leader not a Tweeter” and “don’t make America hate again.” Some waved the U.S. flag, some the Mexican flag. Those protesters who remained at City Hall into the afternoon were met by dozens more who marched there from the J.J. Pickle Federal Building, and together they made a second trip to the Capitol.

One pro-Trump man on the street shouted at protesters, “They came here illegally!” and “Trump!” Police officers on bikes stood by cautiously, warning the man to keep his distance.

A woman held her coat in front of him to block him from view. Another woman encouraged protesters to ignore him: “Keep walking!”

The protests came on the heels of a recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement effort to detain undocumented immigrants in Austin and several other cities. While authorities have said they focused on picking up “criminal aliens,” detentions have sparked widespread outrage and fear.

Among those worried is 22-year-old Gernan Mejia. He came from Oaxaca, Mexico, to the U.S. when he was 2 years old. He worries that Trump could revoke the permission to stay in the country that he received under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

“The only thing that I feel right now is fear, every time I see something on the news, every time I hear something about it,” Mejia said. “The only thing that I can do is pray, because at this point there is nothing else that we can do. The only thing that we can do is raise our voice this way.”

An early version of this story incorrectly identified an event attendee as Noel Covarrubias. Her name is Noemi Covarrubias.



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