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Tuesday, May 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Huge turnout for rally in Seattle

Thousands of immigrants and their allies across Washington state took the day off Monday from jobs and schools and stayed away from stores, forcing some businesses to close and leaving others short-staffed.

Employers, most notified in advance of the work stoppage, said they were coping as best they could — either by shifting work that was scheduled for Monday to other days, or by using managers and other workers to fill in for marchers.

In what some organizers were calling a "Day Without Immigrants," the May Day event in Seattle began with a silent march in the Central Area and ended with a loud rally at the Federal Building in downtown Seattle.

Some participants said the demonstration was larger than a similar immigration rally here three weeks ago, which drew an estimated 20,000 to 30,000. Hilary Stern, one of the organizers and the executive director of Casa Latina, which dispatches day laborers, said it drew as many as 65,000.

May Day work stoppages were held in about 70 cities nationwide, despite concerns some organizers had about a political and economic backlash.

How close organizers may come to proving their point — that the economy will struggle, perhaps even falter, without the contribution of immigrant workers — likely will not be known for some time, if at all.

In downtown Los Angeles, one in three small businesses closed.

Across the country, demonstrators were seeking changes in immigration laws that would create a clear path to citizenship for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, speed up the process by which family members abroad can join them, and establish workplace protections for all immigrants.

The Seattle march began at 4:30 p.m., with demonstrators — mainly Latino — walking toward downtown, many waving American or Mexican flags, others carrying signs or pushing strollers.

The march began quietly, but as participants passed the Chinatown International District and approached downtown, cheers and eventually a few chants erupted. Demonstrators filled the width of the street and the length of many blocks. Evonne Martinez, a social worker from Seattle, participated in hopes of raising awareness about "the sheer number of people this country depends on, and the sheer number of people that've lived in the shadows."

Maria Martinez, 40, a homemaker from Sultan, came with her husband and two young children because "I know a lot of decent people who don't have papers. They just break the law to come here, but only because they have no jobs back in their country. But they are not bad people. They're decent. They work hard."

For the most part, onlookers were polite or cheered and clapped. Only a scattered few counterdemonstrators were seen.

Josh Yunker, 30, an engineer from Seattle, looked on politely. He said that while he didn't agree with a bill passed by the U.S. House to make illegal immigration a felony, he also found the demonstration "kind of ballsy" given that he sees some of the participants as "illegal aliens."

"I see a lot of Mexican flags. That offends me," he said.

Others were critical for other reasons.

In Chinatown ID, near the route of the march, a group of waiters, cooks and owners at Sea Garden restaurant remarked that they had waited for up to five years to immigrate to the U.S. legally. "And these people are sneaking across the border and demanding all kinds of rights," said owner Phil Chan.

Chan grew more frustrated at all his empty tables, which he attributed to nearby streets having been blocked for the march.

"On any other Mondays, these tables would be filled by now."

Organization

The event was organized or supported by labor groups, churches and immigrant advocates. And while all supported the work stoppage, not everyone agreed that students should take the day off.

School districts from Mukilteo to Yakima reported widespread absences. In many cases, those who missed classes to protest will get an unexcused absence unless they have parental permission.

In the Seattle school district, more than 100 students, mostly newly arrived immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, were absent.

In Federal Way, several schools reported an absence of up to 80 percent of their Latino students. In Tukwila School District, which has one of the county's largest immigrant populations, about a quarter of the students — 675 of the 2,586 — were absent, administrators said.

Elsewhere, the impact was sporadic and random — hitting restaurants the hardest.

In White Center, nearly all the Latino stores, including a wedding supply, a chocolatier and a general store, were closed.

Terri Yin, manager of Len's Veggie Corral, a farmers market that stocks a sangria-flavored soda from Mexico and other Latin American products, said many of her regulars stocked up over the weekend in anticipation of Monday's boycott.

Few appeared to begrudge illegal immigrants for seeking legal status. Inside the Locker Room Tavern, patron Troy Terry said illegal immigrants are taking jobs that few American citizens want. Terry waits tables at several Seattle restaurants whose food-preparation areas and dishwashing rooms are run predominantly by Latino workers.

"I know a hell of a lot of white people doing nothing, standing on the street with signs, asking for beer money," Terry said. "You find all these young Mexican people who want to work. If they're not working, they're at the Millionair Club [a day-labor center] trying to find work. Wouldn't that boost the economy?"

Making adjustments

Elsewhere across Seattle yesterday, businesses affected by the stoppage found ways to make do.

At Grand Central Bakery, about a quarter of the 80 workers planned to participate in the demonstration, so the company closed its wholesale baking plant for the day and won't have anything to deliver today.

Mateo Ramos, area director for Azteca Mexican Restaurants, said the Seattle-based restaurant chain closed three of its 33 locations — Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood, Bremerton and downtown Spokane — to accommodate requests for time off.

Ramos is less concerned with the immediate economic impact of Monday's rally than he is with the potential repercussions. "There's a lot of talk about backlash," he said. "To measure the full economic effect, we're going to have to wait a while."

About 20 percent of the roughly 700 workers on construction sites of W.G. Clark Construction in Seattle didn't show up, Chairman and CEO Chris Clark said. That includes companies Clark subcontracts with, he added.

Clark said employers in the construction industry understand the value of immigrant workers: "It'd be impossible to get work done if we didn't have these people in the work force."

ServiceMaster, the company that owns Merry Maids and TruGreen lawn-care services, said shift adjustments were made to allow some employees to attend the rallies.

At Northwest Landscape Services in Woodinville, where sales and marketing director Neil Corcoran said the vast majority of workers are Hispanic, the company planned no work on Monday, but instead prepared for four 10-hour workdays this week.

At Providence Marianwood in Issaquah, at least 12 employees of the 40 daytime workers didn't show up for work on Monday, said the nursing home's administrator Jerry Hoganson.

Almost all took personal days, but in one case when one of them didn't have a personal day to take, a manager volunteered to donate eight hours to that worker, Hoganson said.

"We're a 24/7 business that can't close," Hoganson said.

To make up for the shortage in labor everyone is pitching in, he added. "Managers are doing jobs they normally wouldn't do, like housekeeping, working in the laundry and in the kitchen."

Seattle Times staff reporters Lornet Turnbull, Janet I. Tu, Sanjay Bhatt, Tan Vinh, Jennifer Sullivan, Monica Soto Ouchi, Melissa Allison, David Bowermaster, Dominic Gates, Lisa Chiu and Lynn Thompson contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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