Local News

N.C. Hispanics Rally For Immigration Reform

Posted May 1, 2006 10:29 a.m. EDT

— Hispanics across North Carolina rallied Monday while Republicans at a Charlotte college sold bricks symbolizing the wall they say is needed to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States.

The demonstrations were part of a nationwide call by immigrant activists to boycott work, school and shopping and illustrate how much immigrants matter to the U.S. economy. Supporters said they want to press Congress for reforms that allow illegal immigrants a path toward U.S. citizenship.

But Charlotte's Latino leaders encouraged people to go to work and school rather than risk jobs or grades.

"We live in a community where the immigration has happened very fast. The understanding of our community is very limited," said Angeles Ortega-Moore, executive director of Charlotte's Latin American Coalition.

"Anything that is new, you have to be conscientious about what you do. We don't want to alienate people."

North Carolina's Hispanic population surged nearly 400 percent in the 1990s and grew another 35 percent from 2000 to 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state's Latino population was estimated at more than 600,000, or 7 percent of the total 2004 population, in a study released in January by a pair of University of North Carolina professors.

Rallies were scheduled Monday in Charlotte, Raleigh, Wilmington, Greensboro, Hickory, Asheville, and Lumberton. About 40 people -- including about 30 college students -- gathered in Chapel Hill during the day.

Protesters marched for miles to a rally in downtown Lumberton. Workers from Smithfield Foods Inc.'s pork processing plant in nearby Tar Heel, who have been embroiled in a years-long fight over unionization efforts, made up much of the crowd, union activist Gene Bruskin said.

"We're in the middle of absolutely nowhere _ pig farms _ and you've got 5,000 workers marching," said Bruskin, the Smithfield foods campaign director for the United Food and Commercial Workers. His crowd estimate could not immediately be confirmed.

In downtown Raleigh, about 3,000 protesters circled the state Capitol, waving American flags and pronouncing in Spanish that all things are possible.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school officials warned in a letter to parents last week that students who walked out Monday would be suspended and have to make up classes and homework after school and on weekends, spokeswoman Kathleen Bell said. She said high school principals in the state's largest school district reported no walkouts or unusual absenteeism, Bell said.

The state's No. 2 district, Wake County, also had no walkouts, though absences were not immediately available, spokeswoman Kristin Flenniken said.

The Charlotte school district also told students about a demonstration after the academic day at Covenant Presbyterian Church where they could be heard, Bell said.

Ortega-Moore said it would be hard to measure the impact of any walkout _ particularly in North Carolina, where despite recent explosive growth the Hispanic population remains relatively small.

A pair of restaurants in Chapel Hill and a Carrboro butcher shop were among the smattering of businesses owned by non-Hispanics that voluntarily closed Monday. A telephone recording at Top of the Hill, a Chapel Hill brew pub, said it closed "in support of a community wide effort to bring attention to the shortcomings of our current immigration system and to bring attention to needed immigration reform."

Most Mexican restaurants on Charlotte's East Side also closed to observe the boycott, Ortega-Moore said.

College Republicans at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte staged a rally of their own Monday, demanding tougher enforcement of existing immigration laws and objecting to talk of amnesty for immigrants now in the country illegally. The GOP group sold bricks symbolic of a wall it said was needed to secure U.S. borders.

"We hope to raise public awareness about the issue," group chairman Erin Karriker said. "A lot of the feedback was very positive."

The group sold about 50 bricks at $5 each in four hours. The money will pay to ship the bricks, each bearing a note on the immigration issue, to U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, R-N.C.; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.; and other Senate leaders, Karriker said.