Immigrants across Chicago heeded a call to skip work and school Thursday to demonstrate the economic power of a community that has been shaken by the Trump administration’s hard-line stance on immigration.
Numerous businesses — including restaurants, dental offices, construction sites and grocery stores — either closed for the day or let employees take the day off to support A Day Without Immigrants, a loosely organized protest in several cities across the country that could represent the first salvo in a long fight. High-profile restaurants including The Berghoff and four establishments owned by Chicago chef Rick Bayless were among those that closed.
“This is to make them hear us,” said Jose Ruiz, 38, at a pro-immigrant rally at Union Park. Ruiz, who moved to Chicago from Mexico 20 years ago, said his employer, Pizza Nova, closed for the day after multiple workers asked to join the protest. He brought his 8-year-old daughter, Jessica, who took the day off from school.
Thursday’s action sent “a clear message that the immigrant community is ready to use its labor and consumer power to fight and begin a new chapter in the immigrant rights movement,” said a statement from Movimiento Cosecha, a national immigrant rights advocacy group that plans a similar one-day action May 1 as well as a seven-day Week Without Immigrants at a later date.
“We are switching the conversation from ‘Are immigrants wanted?’ to ‘Are immigrants needed?'” Maria Fernanda Cabello, a spokesperson for the group, said in the statement. “We cannot live like this anymore and the immigrant community is ready to show this country what would happen without us.”
The group was not involved in organizing Thursday’s protests, which appeared to come together by word of mouth and social media.
President Donald Trump made curbing legal and illegal immigration a cornerstone of his campaign, citing concerns about American jobs and public safety, and he has started to fulfill those promises. One executive order, currently on court-imposed hold, bars immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days, plus suspends refugee admissions for 120 days and Syrian refugees indefinitely. Another order cracks down on the estimated 11 million immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally by expanding who is a priority for deportation.
Online flyers promoting the protests encouraged immigrants — those who are here legally and not — to not go to work, open their businesses, shop online, eat in restaurants, buy gasoline, go to class or send their kids to school.
Bayless shut down four of his restaurants “out of respect” for a staff vote to support the action, he said on Facebook. Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco in River North and Fonda Frontera in Wicker Park closed, while Cruz Blanca and Lena Brava in the West Loop remained open and directed 10 percent of gross revenue Thursday to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
The restaurants called everyone who had reservations to explain the reason for the cancellation and rebooked them, said Casey Cora, media director for the River North restaurants.
The decision affected about 200 workers, who overwhelmingly voted in favor of joining the protest, Cora said. They were not paid for the day.
While the disruption likely had little economic impact, “This was about pure symbolism,” Bayless said in an email.
“We’re trying to bring some recognition that America is a country built by immigrants,” Bayless said. “We work with so many immigrants in our profession, and certainly in our restaurants, and we wanted to stand together with them because that’s what country is about.”
The Berghoff, a landmark Loop restaurant, also opted to close after management polled its hourly staff Wednesday and found the majority did not plan to show up for work the next day.
“From an operational standpoint we decided it was best to close for the day, but also to stand in support,” said Ashley Mazur, marketing and media manager at The Berghoff. About 50 or 60 hourly workers were off for the day, unpaid.
The Berghoff canceled reservations, but “surprisingly, our customers have all been very understanding and said ‘We will come another time,'” Mazur said.
Eater listed more than 50 Chicago restaurants that closed in support of the protest, many of them Mexican restaurants, but also Johnny’s Grill in Logan Square and Acadia in the South Loop. Acadia’s chef, Ryan McCaskey, an immigrant from Vietnam, explained his solidarity in a Facebook post.
“The subject of immigration remains close to my heart as a Saigon born immigrant who came on a green card to America, and was given an amazing opportunity for not only a good life, but a chance at a great career,” he wrote.
Oak Park’s Maya del Sol, owned by the village’s mayor, Anan Abu-Taleb, a Palestinian immigrant, also closed.
Some restaurants that didn’t close still affirmed their support for their workers.
Lula Cafe in Logan Square accommodated any employee who wanted to take the day off for the protest, with pay, and, “as inspired by chef Bayless,” donated 10 percent of gross receipts to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, chef and owner Jason Hammel said.
Pete’s Fresh Market closed five Chicago stores for the day — 5724 S. Kedzie Ave., 4700 S. Kedzie Ave., 4343 S. Pulaski Road, 5838 S. Pulaski Road and 2526 W. Cermak Road — to support its workers, after initially vowing to stay open for customers.
Vanessa Dremonas, an executive officer at Pete’s, said the business invited employees from its closed stores to work at any of its open stores if they wished, and allowed employees at its open store locations to take off if they wished.
Dale Belman, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, said the protest raises awareness of how immigrants fit into the economy, especially those filling many low-wage service positions that are often taken for granted.
“To some degree, they’ve been invisible,” Belman said. “At the very least, it’s a way of reminding people where immigrants are. They’re an integrated part of our economy.”
He added, “Missing having an office or school cleaned for one day is probably not a big deal. But it’s a way of asserting in the current world that you probably can’t function very well without us.”
The rally at Union Park on Thursday, organized by the worker’s center Arise Chicago, drew about 1,000 people, police on the scene estimated. Attendees waving American and some Mexican flags chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A” and held signs with slogans such as “Immigrants Make America Great.”
Octavio Herrera, 27, a drywall taper at a downtown construction site, said he came to support “equality for everybody” and stand for unions and the middle class. He and half a dozen co-workers had been given time off without pay for the protest by their boss.
Herrera shrugged at missing a day’s wages.
“It’s not going to make us richer or poorer,” he said.
Not everyone believed the boycott to be an effective use of resources. Jaime di Paulo, executive director of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, said he advised business owners not to close, saying it would only hurt the community, where the vast majority of stores and customers are Hispanic.
At Hopleaf in Andersonville, which didn’t close for the day, owner Michael Roper said that he is nervous for his immigrant workers and feared calling attention to them or depriving them of work.
“Even if we paid them, they’re not going to get tips,” said Roper, who intends to continue raising money for causes like the American Civil Liberties Union. “I’m not afraid to go on the front lines myself, but they have families to support.”
Samantha Bomkamp and Robert Channick contributed to this report.