Immigration Debate as Seen from Spanish Harlem

A Monday morning visit to Spanish Harlem in New York this morning shows how Latino residents there are dealing with the immigration walkouts and boycotts that are scheduled.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

On a national day of protest for many of America's immigrants, that's our lead today. We'll also speak later in the program with a leading senate Democrat who has a plan for Iraq.

But we'll begin with the Day Without Immigrants, which is what advocates call this national strike or boycott. The goal is to demonstrate the value of immigrants to the economic and civil life of America.

Our coverage begins in New York with NPR's Mike Pesca. Mike, how are things going there?

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Well, New York, such a big city with so many different immigrant communities. I mean, there are more Dominicans here than anywhere else in America, more Irish, more Jamaicans, more, pick almost every country in Africa, plus the French, plus the English.

So to ask, what's the story with immigrants in New York is a tough question. So did a little legwork. I called around to some schools in immigrant communities. Attendance seems down. There are no official figures.

I called around to hotels because, of course, many immigrants work in the hotel industry. No hotels admitted they were understaffed. To check it out, I walked into a lobby or two. I saw no evidence of travelers waiting longer than usual to check in.

But there is evidence that this day had some effect here in the city.

CHADWICK: Well, places where businesses are closed?

PESCA: Right. I went up to 116th Street on the east side. That's an area known as Spanish Harlem. The Spanish in New York are Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans. Of course, the biggest group is Puerto Ricans. That changes the dynamic because Puerto Ricans are, of course, U.S. citizens.

So I've talked to Puerto Rican people and they talked about this day and they say, yes, some of my immigrant friends are not going to work. Demographers say that actually Dominicans will soon become the largest Hispanic group in New York City.

What I did was I went to an area of Spanish Harlem, which was Second Avenue and 116th Street. That's heavily Mexican. There I met Gilbert Washington, who lives 100 blocks away. He takes the subway up to Spanish Harlem to work maintenance. He said the subway was empty.

Mr. GILBERT WASHINGTON (Resident, New York City): There's a whole lot of difference. There's hardly nobody out here. Really.

PESCA: Normally what would we be seeing?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Throngs of people coming in, to and fro, you know, getting in my way while I'm trying to sweep.

PESCA: A few of the stores up there, I would say one out of every three or four, were closed. But it was pretty random. So the Mexico Lindo Grocery was closed. But right next door, the Mexico Lindo Bakery was open and the workers in the bakery said the stores have two different owners, even though they're both called Mexico Lindo, which means pretty.

CHADWICK: So did you meet people who were clearly participating in the boycott or clearly not participating in the boycott?

PESCA: I met a lot of people who said they knew people who were participating. But as far as people participating, I met a person or two who was participating.

For instance, Julio Martinez(ph) was in a coffee shop eating breakfast, so I guess he wasn't participating in the boycotting of commerce. But he had just dropped his children off at school for what he said would be a half day. The other half would be going down to the major demonstration, which is scheduled for Union Square.

Mr. JULIO MARTINEZ (Resident, New York City): No, I don't work today. I stop for this day, because I need to be with my people, the immigrant people, you know?

PESCA: Martinez told me he was a contractor and that his boss gave him the day off. The boss was sympathetic. But maybe part of that was Martinez said all his other co-workers were Jamaican and they weren't taking part in the immigrant boycott, so the boss was covered for the day.

CHADWICK: Okay. And finally, Mike, I've been hearing about these human chains. This is a tactic people are going to be using, forming human chains around the city?

PESCA: I don't think these chains are meant to block traffic or get in the way. I think they're supposed to have symbolic resonance, people linking arms. And the time that was chosen for them, which was 12:16 p.m., that also has symbolic resonance, because 12/16, that is December 16th, was the day last year when the House of Representatives passed Bill 4437, which is the Sensenbrenner Immigration Bill that many of these immigrants are protesting against.

But also, remember, 12:16 meant that you could do it on your lunch break. And the main protest is to be held at 4:00 o'clock. The main protest is to be held at 4 p.m., and part of that is because school lets out by then.

CHADWICK: NPR's Mike Pesca in New York. Thank you, Mike.

PESCA: Welcome.

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