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Immigrants’ impact felt locally

Massive protests across the nation a few weeks ago let Americans know there is a festering disconnect between citizens’ opinions of recent Hispanic immigrants, and the views of the immigrants themselves.

But across the nation Monday, millions of Hispanic residents – many of whom are in the county illegally – skipped work, avoided shopping and closed businesses in an effort to demonstrate what an “America without immigrants” would look like.

And in Demopolis, at least, it looked like lunchtime with one less option on the menu. The city’s three popular Mexican restaurants, La Cocina, El Ranchero and La Gran Fiesta, were closed all day. Repeated calls for comment went unanswered.

Elsewhere in the state, shuttered stores were coupled with marches and demonstrations.

Hundreds of people attended demonstrations in Huntsville, Tuscaloosa and Dothan, where immigrants and supporters marched from a church to the Houston County Courthouse.

In Huntsville, where several hundred people marched through downtown, a few opponents held up signs with slogans including “Illegals Do Not Belong.” About 200 people joined in a silent march through the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa.

Many Hispanics are drawn to the U.S. by readily available jobs picking row crops like cotton, soybeans and corn. Since Marengo County has few of these crops, county Extension Coordinator Kathryn Friday said, “few farmers use outside or immigrant labor.”

But at Personal Touch, a landscaping and refracting business owned by Honduras-native J.R. Rivas, the boycot was in full effect, with most of his 120 employees taking the day off to mark the occasion.

“We have not picketed, but we do think that there should be something worked out to get many of these hard-working immigrants legal status.”

But the Rivas’ support of immigrants’ rights does not extend to full amnesty for those who cross into America illegally. J.R., you see, went through the proper channels when he moved from Honduras to New Orleans. There, he was a police officer more than 20 years ago. He volunteered for dangerous duty as a criminal informant for the Department of Immigration and Customs as a way to earn his citizenship, Tina said.

The Rivases have lived and operated their business in Demopolis for almost 10 years.

J.R., as translated by his wife, voiced strong disagreement with illegal immigrants coming here as illegal immigrants.

“They’ll be underpaid, mistreated by people who don’t want to pay more,” he said through Tina, recounting stories they’d heard of people working in unsafe factory conditions.

Because the workers were not legal, the company didn’t pursue taking care of them, he said.

Elsewhere in the state, shuttered stores were coupled with marches and demonstrations.

Hundreds of people attended demonstrations in Huntsville, Tuscaloosa and Dothan, where immigrants and supporters marched from a church to the Houston County Courthouse.

In Huntsville, where several hundred people marched through downtown, a few opponents held up signs with slogans including “Illegals Do Not Belong.” About 200 people joined in a silent march through the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa.

While even most opponents peacefully tolerated the immigrant protests, that wasn’t always the case.

In the northwest Alabama town of Russellville – where the Ku Klux Klan plans a rally against illegal immigrants on Saturday – officials said more than 20 percent of the system’s 560 Hispanic students were absent.

In Shelby County, 30 percent of the more than 1,031 Hispanics enrolled at 11 schools were absent.

In the Demopolis City School System, though, Community Education Director Barbara Hill reported that no Hispanic students were reported absent at Westside or U.S. Jones elementary schools.

The protests in Alabama were dwarfed by ones held in more populous states, and the work stoppage apparently had only a limited affect in Alabama, where the Census Bureau estimates the Hispanic population at 100,000 out of about 4.5 million people

Many Hispanic men seeking work as day laborers were out on their usual corners in the cities of Hoover and Pelham, and construction and landscaping companies reported absenteeism at normal levels.

A truckload of Hispanic men loaded into a truck from MBS Professional Landscaping after cutting the grass outside a supermarket in Hoover. An assistant manager with MBS, Brenda Walters, said the company had most all of its normal employees and had not done anything to encourage them to come to work.

“We haven’t felt any effect at all,” she said.