Many businesses across NJ close for the ‘Day Without Immigrants,’ but participation isn’t universal

Posted at 8:55 PM, Feb 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-16 20:55:23-05

PERTH AMBOY, N.J. — In cities and towns across New Jersey, thousands of people chose to take part in the "Day Without Immigrants" protest by staying home from work and, in some cases, even keeping their children home from school.

However, participation, while widespread, was by no means universal, and some participants carried out their protest in somewhat unconventional ways.

In that last category were the owners and staff of Taco Express, a restaurant in Perth Amboy. Even though they participated in the "Day Without Immigrants," the immigrants from Mexico who make up the staff and ownership were at work -- in the restaurant they'd closed for the day.

"We're cleaning up, making some changes [to the restaurant] and making sure our day isn't lost," said Daysi León, 26, whose parents founded the eatery after emigrating from the Mexico City area 23 years ago.

León said that they'd chosen to close the restaurant as part of the protest, but to still work inside it, in order to make a statement. "We're not lazy people," she told PIX11 News. "We didn't come here to take jobs. We're creating jobs, because it's a business. We're opening doors for people to come work."

She and her parents also own a flower shop in Perth Amboy, which was among dozens of businesses across the small city on New York Harbor that were shuttered. In the case of Taco Express, they had to turn away loyal customers like Julisa Madama, who'd driven her friend Robin Thompson to the restaurant for lunch.

"We come here quite often, and it's very disappointing," said Thompson, upon learning that her favorite lunchtime eatery was closed for the day. "They deserve to be here as much as we do."

Throughout Perth Amboy, a grocery store, boutiques, nail salons, and a variety of other businesses had shut themselves down. Taxi cabs stood unused and unoccupied on the streets because all of the cab companies in town were closed.

It was all part of an effort by the mayor of Perth Amboy, Wilda Diaz, to support the protest, which had a clear effect on shoppers, diners and other residents.

"If every community takes part in this," said shopper Erick Castillo, "it can be a really good message to people in Washington."

In fact, every city and town with a sizable immigrant community in New Jersey, particularly those with large Latino populations, had dozens or more businesses shut down.

There were also demonstrations against the Trump Administration's overturned travel ban and other policies, in Lakewood, New Brunswick and Perth Amboy, as well as a small demonstration in Newark.

However, in Newark, the state's largest city, signs on the shut and locked front doors of businesses proliferated. Hundreds of businesses chose not to open because, as the handwritten sign on the front of a deli on Broad Street read, there were "no workers" available.

However, not every immigrant-dependent business was closed. In Perth Amboy, on Smith Street, the city's main shopping venue, a Peruvian restaurant stayed open. Its manager told PIX11 News that its owner was on vacation.

Another indicator of participation in the protest was evident at the intersection of Ferry and Chambers Streets in Newark. There, on three of the four corners, are Brazilian/Portuguese restaurants that rely on immigrant labor.

Two of the restaurants, Alta Horas and Casa Nova, were shuttered, with signs explaining their closures prominently displayed on their windows and doors. Across the intersection, another restaurant was open for business.

Some schools in Newark, according to some staff, saw attendance down about 20 percent.

The remaining students were sent home with letters in English and Spanish explaining to parents that the school district never asks children what their immigration status is and it's therefore never recorded or reported to federal authorities.