Thousands of Charlotte-area immigrants and their supporters joined in the national “Day Without Immigrants” movement Thursday, packing Marshall Park and filling the streets of uptown in peaceful protest of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“We are here because the police, immigration and this president are terrorizing us,” said Stefania Arteaga, a leader of the group Communidad Collectiva, which organized the rally. “Our community is living in fear. They have to stop.”
The march, which city officials estimate drew 7,000-8,000 people, shut down portions of Tryon and Trade streets at midday. Police kept watch at several intersections as motorists were forced to wait.
Some people parked and joined the march, others honked their approval from their cars. No arrests were reported.
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The Day Without Immigrants attracted support in cities around the nation, including in Raleigh, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. It urged people to close businesses, skip work or school, and refrain from shopping and eating out as a way to show their impact. In the Charlotte region, an estimated 250 Latino businesses remained closed for the day in solidarity.
In the park, some held signs that read “We are not criminals,” “Give us a chance for a better life,” and “Don’t separate my family.” In English and Spanish people chanted “People united will never be defeated” and “Yes we can.”
Charlotte resident Roberto Mendoza said he came to “support the community we love and to show we are not criminals. We are here to work and do the best we can together.”
Communidad Collectiva asked that city leaders do more to stand up for the immigrant community, a sentiment summed up by one of the numerous signs at the rally: “ICE out of Charlotte. Mayor Roberts step up.”
Many expressed disappointment in how immigrants are perceived.
“Why do they treat us like garbage when we are here to help the community?” asked Gerardo Ojeda, an undocumented Charlotte resident from Mexico.
African immigrant Terza Lima-Neves, an associate professor of political science at Johnson C. Smith University, said she decided to join the rally instead of teaching her classes. She made the decision after getting emails from students who told her they were going as well.
“I wanted to stand in solidarity with many of my students and to add an African voice to this conversation on immigration,” said Lima-Neves, a naturalized citizen.
When the crowd reached the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, they heard from several speakers, including the daughter of Bunloeum Phayrin, a 47-year-old Cambodian man who was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this month but later released.
The family of Josue Diaz, who was fatally shot by a CMPD detective during a confrontation this month, also addressed the group. Diaz’s parents said they supported the goals of the rally, while adding that in their son’s case, the family is still seeking resolution.
Businesses that closed ranged from restaurants to car washes, trucking and construction services.
The Compare Foods grocery store chain said on Facebook it closed its seven area stores “to unite completely on Immigration Day.”
On South Boulevard at midday Thursday, Morazán, a restaurant normally bustling with a lunch crowd ordering Salvadorian, Honduran and Mexican fare, was closed, despite the “open” sign in its window.
A few doors down, a laundromat called Washland was open but empty. Employee Karen Bridges estimates that about 90 percent of the customer base is Latino, and that business has been much slower this week. “They’re scared. I can tell they’re scared,” Bridges said.
Despite the call to boycott classes, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools urged immigrant parents not to keep students home. CMS said it will release attendance figures Friday to show how many children skipped school Thursday.
A community on edge
The immigrant community in the Carolinas and around the nation has been on edge because of an executive order last month from President Donald Trump that appeared to expand the definition of criminal immigrants targeted for deportation to include those who entered the U.S. illegally. That order is on hold from a court challenge. Others have been upset over deportation roundups of undocumented immigrants by ICE.
Last week, ICE arrested more than 100 undocumented immigrants in the Carolinas. Trump said he wants to deport undocumented immigrants who committed serious crimes, adding, “We are going to get the bad ones.”
The Migration Policy Institute – a nonpartisan think tank in Washington – has estimated that 54,000 people are living illegally in Mecklenburg County, including 10,000 who have been here more than 15 years. The information was based on 2014 data.
Many experts estimate 11.1 million undocumented people live in the U.S., with North Carolina cited as the state with the sixth fastest-growing immigrant population, both legal and undocumented.
Staff writers Ely Portillo and Mark Price contributed.