Power in numbers

A statewide Hispanic boycott crippled Georgia's economy for a day. What's next?

Josefa Esquea told customers she wouldn't be open Friday. The Dominican Republic immigrant — who came to New York City in the 1980s and then relocated to Atlanta — planned on participating in the strike she heard about on a Hispanic radio station. She knew she'd lose business by closing her popular MiPilon restaurant in Duluth, but she wanted to send the Georgia General Assembly a message: The state's economy needs us.

"We're here to invest money and contribute to society," Esquea says. "We work hard and do our jobs and want to be appreciated. We're tired of living in the shadows."

On March 24, more than 80,000 Hispanics didn't buy anything and didn't go to work at construction sites, poultry plants and fast-food restaurants in opposition to Senate Bill 529, a comprehensive proposal that would prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving tax-funded services, and fine employers who hire undocumented workers. On Monday, the state Senate approved the bill. The only way for it to be halted now is if Gov. Sonny Perdue does not sign it into law.

The boycott, which was started by an anonymous flier circulating throughout metro Atlanta, crippled workplaces across the state, says Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

"Several McDonalds and a couple landscaping companies had to close today," Gonzalez says. "This hurts Georgia's economy and hopefully will send a message to the governor not to sign this bill."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the buying power of Hispanics in Georgia totals approximately $11 billion — about 5 percent of Georgia's entire economy. And a study conducted by the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute shows that illegal immigrants each pay between $2,340 and $2,470 in state and local taxes annually.

"There was an economic impact felt as a result of the boycott," says Tisha Tallman, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "The community's actions made the issue more palatable, more real to individuals who haven't accepted the Latinos' contribution numbers."

The "Day of Dignity," as its organizers called it, was one of several protests that has generated nationwide attention. Last week, about 30,000 protesters marched in downtown Milwaukee as part of "A Day Without Latinos" to oppose federal legislation that would make undocumented immigrants felons. In Los Angeles, more than a half-million demonstrators marched in support of immigrants' rights, and 300,000 people rallied in Chicago in early March.

The debate weaving through federal and state levels has pitted party members against each other. President Bush has backed a Senate Judiciary Committee's proposal for a comprehensive guest worker program, while other Republicans are calling for a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., backed away from his party's immigration stance this week by proposing to grant illegal immigrants already here legal status if they help Georgia's farmers bring in a harvest.

On March 17, the day the anonymous flier was distributed, a handful of Hispanic religious leaders, media executives and immigrant advocates met at a restaurant in Smyrna to discuss ways to oppose Georgia's immigration proposals. Naming themselves the March 17 Alliance, the group called for the creation of "unity in favor of defending the immigrant community's human rights."

"We wanted to show the government that the Latino population is very important to the state," says the Rev. Julian Herrera, a spokesman for the Alliance. "We wanted politicians to understand what we do for the economy."

In the early morning hours of March 24, Rolando Santiago, an Alliance organizer, passed by several of Atlanta's Latino-populated communities on Buford Highway. Bus stops were abandoned and construction sites remained empty. More than 100 Hispanic-owned businesses shut down, Santiago says, and several contractors called in to Neal Boortz's popular radio show on WSB-AM (750) to vent about the lack of employees working.

"We contribute much more to society than we're given credit for," Santiago says. "We're not going to stand by and do nothing and act like we don't exist."

In addition to boycotting work, many Hispanic parents kept their children home from school. Hall County Schools spokesman Gordon Higgins says the absentee rate among Hispanic students on March 24 totaled 41 percent. Gwinnett County Schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach says Gwinnett also saw a significant decrease in Latino attendance.

What's more, about 200 students and workers congregated on the steps of the Georgia Capitol to protest immigration reform. They carried signs that read "Don't panic, we're only Hispanic" and "We also have a dream," while shouting "Justice now" and "The people united will never be defeated."

In the early afternoon, state Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, and Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, arrived to answer questions and quell fears about SB 529.

"You must not panic," Zamarripa told the crowd. "There are elements to this bill that could change. Don't believe the lies and rumors that are spreading. It's not over yet. We'll keep fighting."

Zamarripa and Marin asked the Latino community to express their concerns and fears in prayer.

Lizabeth Gomez, a Georgia State student, read a letter to the crowd that urged Latinos to call Gov. Sonny Perdue's office and tell him not to sign SB 529. She likened the Hispanics' battle to that of African-Americans'.

"[The government] wants us to contribute to society," Gomez says, "but they're not willing to contribute to our community. We'll fight like the African-Americans did in the 1960s."

The success of March 24 showed the power of the immigrant community — a notion that will lead to more action, Tallman says. Already, on Sunday, two days after the boycott, the Latin American Association offered a community seminar at Plaza Fiesta on Buford Highway to educate the Latino community about SB 529.

Josh Hopkins, director of resource development for the association, says a large amount of misinformation is spreading throughout the Hispanic community and creating a culture of fear.

"We want to make sure everybody has correct answers about the legislation," Hopkins says. "Our role is to try to communicate to the community, listen to their concerns and stop rumors from spreading."

Herrera, the Alliance spokesman, says his group is planning a march in Atlanta in conjunction with the National Day of Action, April 10. The Alliance is also trying to organize a national boycott several days after the National Day of Action.

Tallman says it won't be the last time the community raises its voice.

"I don't think this is going to be the last of our community coming forward and taking the active part in what will impact their future," Tallman says. "This is just the beginning."

Alejandro Leal contributed reporting for this article.