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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 14, 2006

Some pay heavily for attending immigration rallies

By Anna Johnson
Associated Press

Pedro Ortega lost his job of eight years when he attended a march. A workers-rights organization intervened, and he and others were rehired.

JOSHUA LOTT | Associated Press

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CHICAGO Six employees at a seafood restaurant in Houston were fired this week after skipping work to take part in a pro-immigration march. In Detroit, 21 immigrants lost their jobs as meat cutters after attending a similar protest last month.

And several students at a high school near Tampa, Fla., were suspended this week for walking out of class to go to a demonstration.

Across the country, workers and students have paid a price for attending the immigration rallies that have recently swept the nation. They have lost jobs or been cited for truancy for joining the hundreds of thousands who have protested proposed federal legislation that would crack down on illegal immigrants.

In one case, the family of a 14-year-old Los Angeles-area boy said he committed suicide because he was threatened by a school official for participating in immigration protests. School officials disputed that.

Now, some rally organizers are telling people not to risk their jobs or education to attend the demonstrations and are considering rescheduling protests to weekends and evenings.

"This is a concern because this is a demographic of people who have historically not come out into the streets to raise an issue," said Germonique Jones, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Center for Community Change, an umbrella group behind the rallies. "Obviously, businesses have to be run, and it's only right for people to tell their employers that they will be out beforehand. ... We don't want people losing their jobs over this."

But many others say marchers want to make the sacrifice to show the importance of immigration reform.

In some cases, fired workers have been offered their jobs back after advocacy groups have gotten involved, including the 21 Detroit meatpacking company workers.

The company said yesterday that it would rehire them, but only if the staffing company they were hired through can confirm they are legal immigrants.

Pedro Ortega, 30, was fired along with nine co-workers from an automotive parts factory in a suburb south of Chicago after attending a March 10 immigration march that drew more than 100,000 people.

A workers-rights organization got involved and negotiated with Cobra Metal Works Corp., which rehired the employees about a month later, he said.

The company said in a statement it supports immigration reform and will allow workers to speak out as long as they follow company procedures for taking time off.

Ortega, who has worked at the factory for eight years, said attending the march was worth the repercussions, and he plans to attend another rally in Chicago scheduled for May 1.

"We have to change the way the American people think about us," Ortega said. "We are here to work and to make our lives better."

But in Phoenix, one of the organizers of a city's immigration march earlier this week, former state Sen. Alfredo Gutierrez, said a planned May 1 work and school boycott is generating little interest from many advocacy groups. He said participants are tired and have to return to work.

In Chicago, Rafael Pulido, a deejay on WOJO-FM who was instrumental in getting the word out about the city's huge March 10 rally, said he tells his listeners not to skip school.

"I am not in favor of students leaving schools to protest," said Pulido, who goes by the name "El Pistolero."

Jerry Gonzalez of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, which helped organize Monday's march in Atlanta, said while some businesses shut down to allow employees to participate, organizers stress that workers need to get permission to miss work and students should stay in school.

"The whole reason people are here is to work," Gonzalez said. "We need to do (protests) responsibly."

Other rally organizers say they plan to encourage people to participate in the May 1 boycotts and marches, and said they will work with employers to ensure protesters will not be punished and to help fired workers find new jobs. Groups also are helping students, parents and schools prepare.

The Mexican-American Political Association, a central organizer of rallies in Southern California, is planning to send thousands of form letters to parents that they can use as school absence slips for their children.

"Parents have every right to keep their children home from school for personal reasons," said the association's president, Navito Lopez.

Others say while they recognize that some students and workers may not be able to attend weekday rallies, the marches are too important to hold them at night or on weekends, when fewer people will take notice.

"I think what all these sacrifices indicate is how critical this issue is for workers and students," said Tim Bell of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, the group that helped Ortega. "Workers want people to know how valuable their work is to the nation, and if they don't work, there is a huge effect on the country."