Northwest Arkansas students miss school, businesses close for A Day Without Immigrants

Posted: February 17, 2017 at 1:09 a.m.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/JASON IVESTER A handwritten sign alerts El Patron Market customers Thursday the Springdale business is closed for the day.

Nearly half the students of Springdale's Jones Elementary School missed school Thursday.

District administrators said they won't officially know why the rate of absences rate was so large until the students return, but said they think many were participating in the nationwide protest called A Day Without Immigrants. About 87 percent of the school's 540 students come from families speaking foreign languages at home.

Northwest Arkansas participation in Day Without Immigrants was a "grassroots" effort catching steam with members of the immigrant community choosing to close businesses or to stay home from work, said Mireya Reith, founding executive director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition, a Springdale-based immigrant advocacy group.

The boycott was aimed at President Donald Trump's effort to step up deportations, build a wall at the Mexican border and close the nation's doors to many travelers. Organizers said they expected thousands to participate or otherwise show support.

The immigrant community is reacting to fears and uncertainty about federal immigration enforcement activity, Reith said. She has been in touch with law enforcement and the New Orleans office for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and isn't aware of anything beyond the agency's routine operations responding to criminal activity.

The office posted the following Wednesday on Twitter: "Reports of ICE checkpoints and sweeps or "roundups" are false, dangerous and irresponsible. These reports create mass panic and put communities and law enforcement personnel in unnecessary danger."

A vigil today and a state conference this weekend in Little Rock are aimed at providing a space for people from Arkansas to share concerns and interest in supporting immigrants, she said.

The Springdale coalition wasn't involved in the protest, but Reith supports the statement residents made with a demonstration of their economic power and impact.

Missing school

The Springdale School District has the largest number of children in the state who speak foreign languages at home, with 54 percent, or 11,783 of the 21,660 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, coming from families who speak more than 40 languages at home.

Deputy Superintendent Jared Cleveland said about 7 percent of students are absent on a typical day, but 26 percent of students in kindergarten through 12th grade missed school Thursday. Principals will follow district policy on absences.

Absences also were large among pre-kindergartners with 38 percent of the 1,340 children in the program not in classrooms Thursday, Cleveland said.

Jones Elementary School Principal Melissa Fink said families at the school fall on both sides of the political spectrum. Shortly after the election, some students expressed concerns about being deported, but Fink said she assured the children and their parents school is a safe place.

"This is where I need to be," Fink said. "We not only meet their academic needs, but social, emotional and physical needs. This is where I can make the most impact."

Fink met with parents involved in the school Family Literacy Program recently and said she talked to them about how to have a voice. Students are learning to back up their opinions with facts, and she encouraged parents to learn about all sides of an issue to develop an informed opinion.

The Rogers School District reported about 22 percent of students were absent Thursday, well more than the normal rate of 6 percent, according to Ashley Siwiec, director of communications for the district.

"School is still going on, but we miss having every student here," Siwiec said in an email.

A little more than half of Rogers' students are racial or ethnic minorities, including about 45 percent who are Hispanic, according to state data.

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Immigrant workers

Signs in Spanish informed would-be customers of some Northwest Arkansas shops they were closed as part of the Day Without Immigrants.

Brendan Simmons, a junior at Har-Ber High School, was puzzled when he walked up to one of his favorite places for tacos, Taqueria Guanajuato, to find it was closed.

He stopped by one location, learned it was closed and then drove to the second location to find another locked door. The tacos were to be a treat for doing well on an ACT pre-test, he said.

At school, he noticed his classes were smaller than usual, but initially didn't realize the possible connection with Day Without Immigrants, he said.

Then Simmons remembered seeing some information about Day Without Immigrants on Instagram.

He notices the impact of immigrants on the community with all the locally-owned restaurants with a focus on ethnic foods, he said.

"They're just people," he said. "They're a part of the Springdale community."

The protest even reached into the U.S. Capitol, where a Senate coffee shop was among the eateries closed as employees didn't show up at work.

Organizers appealed to immigrants from all walks of life to take part, but the effects were felt most strongly in the restaurant industry, which has long been a first step up the economic ladder for newcomers to America with its many jobs for cooks, dishwashers and servers.

"The really important dynamic to note is this is not antagonistic, employee-against-employer," said Janet Murguia, president of the Hispanic rights group National Council of La Raza. "This is employers and workers standing together, not in conflict."

She added: "Businesses cannot function without immigrant workers today."

At a White House news conference held as the lunch-hour protests unfolded, President Donald Trump boasted of his border security measures and immigration arrests of hundreds of people in the past week, saying, "We are saving lives every single day."

Since the end of 2007, the number of foreign-born workers employed in the U.S. has climbed by nearly 3.1 million to 25.9 million; they account for 56 percent of the increase in U.S. employment over that period, according to the Labor Department.

Roughly 12 million people are employed in the restaurant industry, and immigrants make up the majority -- up to 70 percent in places such as New York and Chicago, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which works to improve working conditions. An estimated 1.3 million in the industry are immigrants in the U.S. illegally, the group said.

The construction industry also employs large numbers of immigrants, and some businesses across the country reported a shortage of workers Thursday. Executives at a pair of Northwest Arkansas firms, Bayyari Properties and Construction and C.R. Crawford Construction, said the event had no effect on their companies.

"We rely on each other for what we do," said Phil Jones, business development officer at C.R. Crawford, where roughly one-fifth of the workforce at the main company and its concrete-focused subsidiary are naturalized citizens or the children of immigrants. "We're very blessed to have a very committed workforce that does the right thing for our clients every day."

NW News on 02/17/2017