Immigrants in the Philadelphia region joined the national “A Day Without Immigrants” protests on Monday, staying out of work and school and skipping consumer purchases to demonstrate their essential role in society and their frustration with the lack of systemic federal reform.
About 50 people — families with children, supporters, and advocacy-group leaders — rallied at LOVE Park in Center City on a frozen, 20-degree mid-morning, marching to circle City Hall and then sharing calls to action at the Municipal Services Building. About two dozen people took part in a second demonstration outside the municipal building in Upper Darby.
“I’m not buying anything today,” said Analine Ceron, 30, who immigrated to Philadelphia from Mexico and joined the LOVE Park rally. “The message is for the government, Biden. He promised immigration reform. Nothing is happening.”
Protests were scheduled in front of the White House and in at least 15 cities to call for reform, and particularly for President Joe Biden to keep his promise to create a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people in the United States.
Organizers set the event for one of the biggest sales holidays of the year, with consumers expected to spend $23.9 billion on Valentine’s Day cards, candy, dinners, jewelry, and gifts, according to the National Retail Federation, the Washington-based trade association, and data firm Prosper Insights & Analytics.
Valentine’s Day ranks close to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Easter in overall spending.
“Our communities pay many millions of dollars in sales every day,” said Maria Serna, an organizer of the Philadelphia rally. “We deserve the same love they show to other families.”
She brushed aside the cold to lead the march to the Octavius Catto Memorial on the south side of City Hall, and then to the Harriet Tubman statue on the north side, connecting demands for immigrant rights with the struggles for fairness and equality faced by African Americans.
“Liberation, freedom, the will to survive, that is what we Black and brown people fight for every day,” Melissa Robbins of NEAR, Northeast Against Racism, told the ralliers when they paused at the second statue. “Our fight is against white supremacy. That is our fight.”
One person held a sign that read “No more broken hearts. Immigration reform!” A red sign adorned with white hearts carried the message “Immigration reform now.”
Immigrant-led families in the United States possessed about $1.3 trillion in spending power in 2019, defined as collective, after-tax income, according to the American Immigration Council. They paid about $331 billion in federal taxes and $162 billion in state and local taxes.
Undocumented families paid about $19 billion in federal taxes and nearly $12 billion in state and local taxes that year, the council said.
But while undocumented migrants pay into tax coffers, they’re excluded from government safety nets like unemployment benefits. They were barred from receiving the federal stimulus money that was a lifeline for many American households during what has been the worst public-health crisis in a century.
National “A Day Without Immigrants” rallies have been held periodically, including in 2006 and 2017 in Philadelphia. Some who took part on Monday recalled having participated in the earlier events as children, noting that years later, promises of immigration reform remain unfulfilled.
Today 14% of Philadelphia’s 1.6 million residents are immigrants, census figures show. They have fueled the city’s population growth after a half-century of declines and, before the pandemic upended the world, driven the creation of new businesses.
A 2018 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the city’s foreign-born population grew 69% from 2000 to 2016, to more than 232,000. And that about 390,000 residents were either immigrants or had immigrant parents.
The pandemic has laid bare the nation’s reliance on immigrant workers, essential in everything from food supply to medical care. Many nurses, doctors, and medical technicians who grew up in the United States, and who remain under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, provide front-line treatment for the sick.
On Valentine’s Day some immigrant-run businesses intended to close for the day, to demonstrate the importance of their labor, goods, and services. Others planned to stay open, saying that two years of pandemic losses make it impossible to turn away receipts and for workers to lose pay.
“We support the rally, but, like a business, we have to be open,” said Juan Carlos Romero, who runs Philly Tacos and leads the Mexican Business Association, which represents South Philadelphia businesses including those at the Italian Market. “We have to work.”
He attended the rally on Monday and spoke strongly in support of immigration reform.
“A Day Without Immigrants” seeks to join all immigrants, young and old, recent and established, documented and undocumented, in a push for change. A year after Biden’s inauguration, many ground-level organizations and advocates have grown enormously dismayed over the administration’s failure to turn promises into reality.
For instance, a more narrow version of the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy, which bars asylum seekers from entering the U.S. while awaiting dates in Immigration Court, continues to operate. Biden’s plan to offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants has gone nowhere, and worse, advocates say, he seems to have stopped pushing for it.
“Most of us in the immigrant-rights movement here in Pennsylvania feel like the Biden administration has failed us,” said Andy Kang, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. “We haven’t seen the White House commit to a different vision of immigration, one that isn’t based on locking people up.”
Even if Biden has been blocked legislatively from implementing his goals, Kang said, much can be done through executive orders and policy changes.
The administration, he noted, continues to enforce what’s known as Title 42. Through that, Trump and now Biden have barred and expelled thousands of asylum seekers on the justification of protecting public health, despite expert assurance that people can be safely processed.
“The little trust that people had in this political system is waning,” said Desi Burnette, statewide coordinator for the immigration group MILPA, and who was among the parents keeping their children out of school on Monday. “There’s a frustration and anger that neither of these political parties has been able to assure the safety, the dignity, the respect, the well-being of immigrant families.”
Stringent immigration policies have keep the number of undocumented people relatively stable, down from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007. Migrants can’t easily leave and return, so they stay, often incurring a human cost that has kept families apart .
Undocumented people, advocates point out, are taxpayers, neighbors, friends and coworkers. About 1.6 million are married to U.S. citizens, and an additional 675,000 are wed to lawful permanent residents, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
Philadelphia is home to about 50,000 undocumented people.
Serna, the rally organizer, credited her fellow protesters with standing up for change, particularly in the bitter cold, and on a holiday.
“It’s a time for love,” she said. “The question is whether 11 million immigrants in the U.S. deserve the same love as everyone else.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.