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"Day without immigrants" protest draws only mild participation in Colorado

February 16, 2017 Updated: February 16, 2017 at 7:51 pm
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Elena Sanchez joins a protest against President Donald Trump's efforts to crack down on immigration Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, in San Francisco. Immigrants around the country have been staying home from work and school today, hoping to demonstrate their importance to America's economy and its way of life. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The "day without immigrants" protest saw only scattered participation in Colorado, but it still served to illuminate the role of immigrants in the state as the Trump administration pursues its enforcement crackdown.

The story of Jeanette Vizguerra, the Denver woman from Mexico who took sanctuary in a Denver church while being declared an "enforcement priority" for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, continued to reverberate. An immigrant rights activist, Vizguerra learned this week that she would be deported following years of attempts to secure legal residency.

Vizguerra, who received repeated residency extensions from the Obama administration, could be separated from her children.

Through Facebook and text messaging, immigrants learned of the national day of protest, which asked workers - many in the hospitality industry - to demonstrate what America would look like without them.

"It shows the power of the diversity that we have as immigrants and how much we contribute to the economy," said Oscar Juarez-Luna, spokesman for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.

On the national level, the impact was noticeable. Federal agencies reported food concessions shutting down at government buildings; some construction work came to a halt in New York City; and along streets in immigrant-heavy cities, rows of stores were shut down.

But in Colorado, only a handful of restaurants closed on Thursday, according to the Colorado Restaurant Association. Eater Denver, a food website, reported that several restaurants in Breckenridge closed in solidarity.

At least one restaurant, Pica's - which has locations in Boulder and Louisville - decided to donate a portion of sales to advocacy groups who support immigrants.

The day appeared to pass without much fanfare in Colorado Springs.

No known mass walk-offs occurred in the city, said two Colorado Springs immigration attorneys and the board chairman of the Colorado Restaurant Association. The city's largest school district (Colorado Springs District 11) also did not announce any major dips in attendance attributable to the protests.

Some Colorado restaurant owners chose not to participate in the event, but still expressed support.

"We don't have any special plans for the day, but we support it wholeheartedly," Pete Turner of the Illegal Pete's burrito chain told Eater Denver.

Carniceria Leonela, a grocery and restaurant at 3738 E. Pikes Peak Ave., posted a sign in its window informing customers in Spanish and English that it was closed for the day in support of immigrants.

The Colorado Restaurant Association said other states experienced a more prolific effort.

"We've slowly been hearing of restaurants closing or adjusting their schedules in the mountain communities (primarily Breckenridge) and in the metro Denver area. Some in solidarity and some because they didn't have enough folks to open," said Carolyn Livingston, spokeswoman for the Colorado Restaurant Association.

The association on Tuesday night informed members that there could be protests, pointing out that owners are not obligated to pay most employees who are not working.

"We don't advise that you discipline employees on top of that. You don't want to do or say anything that could be interpreted as a threat," the association told members.

The Colorado Restaurant Association has been an advocate for immigration reform, highlighting that foreign-born workers are critical to the industry.

There are an estimated 50,000 immigrant workers at restaurants in Colorado, according to the association, which relied on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, restaurants employ nearly 2.3 million foreign-born workers. A whopping 45 percent of restaurant chefs are foreign-born, as are 24 percent of restaurant managers, according to the National Restaurant Association.

The University of Colorado Boulder, with more than 8,000 employees, said about 20 took the day off as part of the protest, though it can't say with certainty how many other employees might have participated.

"We play a dual role as both a university and an employer, and understand that immigration is an issue of increasing importance to students, faculty and staff on many levels," said Deborah Méndez Wilson, a spokeswoman for the university. "So far, we have not seen an impact on campus operations, and we continue to provide all of the basic services we provide to our faculty, staff and students every day."

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Gazette reporters Rich Laden, Debbie Kelley and Jakob Rodgers contributed to this story.

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