LOS ANGELES (AP) – Hundreds of thousands of mostly Hispanic immigrants skipped work and took to the streets yesterday, flexing their newfound political muscle in a nationwide boycott that succeeded in slowing or shutting many farms, factories, markets and restaurants.

Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
A demonstrator rallies in downtown Chicago yesterday. Thousands of illegal immigrants and supporters boycotted work and shopping to flex economic strength. (FOREST CASEY/Daily)

From Los Angeles to Chicago, New Orleans to Houston, the “Day Without Immigrants” attracted widespread participation despite divisions among activists over whether a boycott would send the right message to Washington lawmakers considering sweeping immigration reform.

“I want my children to know their mother is not a criminal,” said Benita Olmedo, a nanny who came to the United States illegally in 1986 from Mexico and pulled her 11-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son from school to march in San Diego. “I want them to be as strong I am. This shows our strength.”

Police estimated 300,000 people marched through Chicago’s business district, and hundreds of thousands more were expected at rallies in New York and Los Angeles. Smaller rallies were planned in more than 50 other cities across the nation.

In heavily Hispanic Perth Amboy, N.J., a normally bustling business district was quiet and still. Block after block of record shops, cafes and produce stores were shuttered on the usually traffic-choked street.

In the Los Angeles area, normally bustling restaurants and markets were dark and truckers avoided the nation’s largest shipping port. About one in three small businesses was closed downtown, including the cluttered produce market and fashion district.

Industries that rely on immigrant workers were clearly affected, though the impact was not uniform.

Tyson Foods Inc., the world’s largest meat producer, shuttered about a dozen of its more than 100 plants and saw “higher-than-usual absenteeism” at others. Most of the closures were in states such as Iowa and Nebraska. Eight of 14 Perdue Farms chicken plants also closed for the day.

Organizers of the rallies instructed protesters to wear white and bring American flags to symbolize peaceful intentions and love of the United States. Many carried signs in Spanish that translated to “We are America” and “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.” Others waved Mexican flags or wore hats and scarves from their native countries. Some chanted “USA” while others shouted slogans, such as “Si se puede!,” Spanish for “Yes, it can be done!”

“We are the backbone of what America is – legal or illegal – it doesn’t matter,” said Melanie Lugo, who was among thousands attending a rally in Denver with her husband and their third-grade daughter.

“We butter each other’s bread. They need us as much as we need them,” she said.

“The president is not a fan of boycotts,” said press secretary Scott McClellan. “People have the right to peacefully express their views, but the president wants to see comprehensive reform pass the Congress so that he can sign it into law.”

The boycott was organized by immigrant activists angered by federal legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants and fortify the U.S-Mexico border. The event split the burgeoning movement, however _ some advocated attending school and work but rallying after business hours.

Ernest Calderon, a 38-year-old concrete worker, came to the Chicago rally with a sign listing the names of his heroes: Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Pancho Villa.

“Our heroes understood that they had to fight for freedom and democracy, and we are here doing the same,” said Calderon, who came from Mexico and gained his citizenship more than a decade ago. “We are here for the same reasons.”

None of the 175 seasonal laborers who normally work Mike Collins’ 500 acres of Vidalia onion fields in southeastern Georgia showed up yesterday.

“We need to be going wide open this time of year to get these onions out of the field,” he said. “We’ve got orders to fill. Losing a day in this part of the season causes a tremendous amount of problems.”

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