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The Taqueria Cielito Lindo Mexican Restaurant on Main Street was one of several Riverhead businesses closed today for the protest. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“A Day Without Immigrants:” Local businesses and workers strike today

Local immigrants and supporters will participate in a strike today as a way to peacefully protest the current anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as a way to demonstrate the impact immigrants have on the local economy and society on a daily basis.

The national boycott, called “A Day without Immigrants,” has been organized mainly through social media and word of mouth.

A flyer circulating on Facebook calls for immigrants, regardless of their status, to stay home from work and schools as well as to close their businesses and refrain from spending money at stores, restaurants and gas stations. This is the latest in a growing movement that looks to emphasize the positive role of immigrants in light of President Donald Trump’s controversial crackdown on illegal immigration and attempt to halt immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries.

“It is unfortunate that the immigrant community, who feels it’s a target of discrimination, needs to take this kind of action to demonstrate how much they contribute to our economy,” Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force co-chairs Sonia Spar and Valery Shelby said in a statement. “It is a day without a paycheck to bring food to their tables, in order to make an important point. We shouldn’t forget we are a nation of immigrants,” they said.

Flanders resident Paola Zuniga first saw the flyer on her Facebook feed and she says that after hearing how much support it was receiving from immigrants and non-immigrants, she felt she had to do her part in helping organize a more formal event. She contacted SEPA Mujer-Services for the Advancement of Women on Tuesday and they quickly rallied behind her and others to organize today’s march with a central message of “peace, unity and no fear.”

“Immigrants live and work here. We don’t want to be afraid, this is our home too and we are good people” she said.

SEPA Mujer Community Organizer Dulce Rojas said that several organizations such as Make the Road NY, Planned Parenthood, Rural and Migrant Ministry and Long Island Jobs with Justice will be supporting today’s march in Hampton Bays. The Southampton Town PBA will also support marchers.

“There are a lot of people who want to have their voices heard,” she said.

She went on to explain around 200 people are expected to participate in the march, and many others who can’t attend will just simply close their businesses or not go to work as a way to support the national boycott in a more informal way.

Last week thousands participated in similar immigration marches in Milwaukee and other cities, which most likely inspired today’s event, she said. Rojas also emphasized the support from immigrants and non-immigrants alike.

Jorge Rojas, a long-standing business owner in Riverhead, first came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1986 when he was 16 years old. He says that he felt compelled to participate in today’s strike after witnessing the amount of fear that the Latino community is experiencing.

“Closing down my business for the day is not good, but I feel it’s important to support the immigrant community. They are vital to Riverhead’s economy,” said Rojas, owner of Mexico Lindo Grocery.

Rojas went on to explain that sales for his business have decreased significantly since Donald Trump was elected president. Immigrants, he said, are holding onto their money because they feel uncertain of their futures.

“This is not a matter of legal status. It’s a matter of showing unity and being respectful towards all members of this community. We are all in this together, immigrants or not,” he said.

Other business owners have also reported a decline in sales and they fear that if the current anti-immigrant sentiment persists, they will have to end up closing their businesses, which will ultimately hurt the economy.
Jesus Milian a deli business owner from Flanders said that immigrants are deeply intertwined in the fabric of the local community and that their contributions are needed.

“I’ve lived in the U.S. for 20 years and I know that diversity helps the economy. Immigrants own homes, businesses, spend money locally and work and live here too,” he said.

Today’s march will start at the Hampton Bays Shell gas station on Montauk Highway at 2 p.m. and conclude at St. Rosalie’s Church at 5 p.m. where a vigil will be held.

Click image to enlarge

In Depth: Immigrants on the East End

David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the Immigration Research Initiative at the Fiscal Policy Institute, said that immigrants are contributing much more broadly than people realize in the East End of Long Island.

“People only think of manual laborers and don’t think of people working in stores, restaurants, hospitals, managerial positions and others areas,” he said.

According to a 2015 FPI report, around 17 percent, or 13,000 people, of the total labor workforce of the Towns of Riverhead, Southold, Southampton and East Hampton is foreign-born, a number that includes both documented and undocumented immigrants.

Kallick explained that there are a lot of stereotypes surrounding immigrants.

“People often have a picture in their head of how an immigrant looks like,“he said.

He said that people see someone Latino-looking and they assume they are undocumented or immigrant, which might not be the case at all. It is also a general misconception that immigrants only perform low-paid, low-skilled manual jobs.

According to the report, immigrants work in a multitude of fields — from child care and construction to nursing and engineering — and come from countries all around the world.

Out of all immigrants in the East End, 60 percent are Latino, a third is non-Hispanic white and 10 percent is Asian.

If immigrants were to leave or not participate locally, “the disruption to society and economy would be enormous,” he said.

Illegal immigration is a contentious and controversial subject for many, but the facts around it are not always clear. Around 1 in 5 immigrants in the East End are undocumented, the study found. The majority came to the U.S. legally, but overstayed their visas. Even though they are a small fraction, Kallick said that undocumented immigrants pay taxes, contribute to the economy and want to become citizens, but there is no path available for them to adjust their status.

“People don’t realize that it is very nearly impossible to gain legal status. For example, the notion of going back to their countries and waiting in line is simply impossible. The wait time can be decades or not even an option. That may have worked in the past, but not now,” he said.

The report concludes by saying that “Like any significant social trend, immigration has been accompanied by numerous changes, both positive and negative. There have been challenges associated with immigration on Long Island, but none would seem to justify the level of acrimony that immigration debates have sometimes attracted.”

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