‘A Day Without Immigrants’ brings parts of Atlanta area to a halt

Scores of activists with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights protested recent arrests outside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s downtown Atlanta offices Thursday. JEREMY REDMON/jredmon@ajc.com

Scores of activists with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights protested recent arrests outside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s downtown Atlanta offices Thursday. JEREMY REDMON/jredmon@ajc.com

Restaurateurs and shop owners shut their doors, protesters marched and some students skipped school Thursday as part of coordinated demonstrations aimed at the Trump administration's hardline immigration policies.

Organized largely on social media, the “A Day Without Immigrants” campaign took place in the Atlanta area and across the nation. It urged people not to work, open their businesses, buy things, go out to eat, buy gas or go to school. The movement started after President Donald Trump signed several executive orders cracking down on illegal immigration and temporarily blocking refugees from coming to the U.S. and halting travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

In some of metro Atlanta’s most diverse school districts, hundreds of students were absent Thursday.

And popular eateries shut their doors.

“We -– as many, many restaurants in Atlanta and throughout the country – are supported by the employment of an immigrant workforce,” said George Frangos, a co-owner of the grass-fed burger chain. “Collectively, we talked about what this day meant to them and what they wanted to do, and we really just supported their decision to not work today.”

An airport official said Atlanta Police and other law enforcement personnel are on hand, as are medical teams if necessary. Authorities are watching crowds to make sure passengers and protesters remain safe.

Meanwhile, nearly three-quarters of Plaza Fiesta – a 350,000-square-foot shopping center that sells many ethnic goods off Buford Highway – was closed Thursday, said Julio Penaranda, the complex's general manager. Restaurants and clothing shops, Penaranda said, were among the businesses that did not open their doors.

“The business owners had the opportunity to decide if they were going to open up their businesses or not today and about 70 percent of them decided not to open,” he said.

Other businesses decided to remain open but show their support in other ways. The Chai Pani Restaurant Group — which has locations in the Atlanta and Asheville, N.C, areas — is giving its proceeds from Thursday to the American Civil Liberties Union, said owner Meherwan Irani, an immigrant from India. His employees – many of whom are Hispanic — were given the choice to take the day off to show support for immigrants.

“Almost everybody showed up for work because they wanted to also support what we were doing,” he said.

“Our restaurants in Atlanta couldn’t function without our Latino employees,” he continued. “Sometimes, we are the third place where they are working. They are some of the hardest working people I have ever met.”

Nearly a quarter of restaurant industry workers are foreign-born compared to 19 percent for the overall economy, according to the Georgia Restaurant Association.

“Legal immigrants are an important part of the restaurant industry and we foster a welcoming environment that includes people from all backgrounds and cultures to dine with us and work in our industry,” Karen Bremer, the association’s CEO, said in a prepared statement.

Separately, scores of activists marched around U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s downtown Atlanta offices Thursday, demonstrating against the agency’s numerous arrests from last week. ICE says it arrested more than 680 unauthorized immigrants, including 87 in Georgia, as part of a nationwide operation focusing on gang members and criminals who pose public safety threats as well as others who are violating the nation’s immigration laws. Organized by the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, the demonstrators chanted: “Not one more deportation!” Others carried signs declaring: “ICE Out of Georgia” and “Stop Raids.”

ICE said the arrests were routine and had been planned prior to Trump’s executive orders.

“ICE is focused on removing public safety threats, such as convicted criminal aliens and gang members, as well as individuals who have violated our nation’s immigration laws,” ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said in a prepared statement, “including those who illegally re-entered the country after being removed and immigration fugitives ordered removed by federal immigration judges.”

In Gwinnett County, many public school parents apparently heeded a call Thursday to keep their children out of school to protest Trump administration immigration policies.

About one-third of Gwinnett County’s public schools had more than 10 percent of its students absent, school district officials reported. The schools with the highest percentage of absences were in schools that are majority Hispanic.

Gwinnett, the state’s largest school district, is about 29 percent Hispanic, state data shows.

Fifty-percent of students in Rockbridge Elementary School, located in Norcross, were absent by the end of the day Thursday, officials reported. It was one of eight schools that had more than one-third of its students who were absent.

Lilburn Middle School sent a letter to parents Wednesday urging parents not to keep their children home Thursday.

“We do understand that this is a parental decision. We would like to encourage you to allow your student to be present for learning, as the absence could be considered unexcused and negatively impact student learning,” the letter said.

DeKalb County school leaders issued a similar statement.

Nonetheless, the district reported that 786 students were missing from Cross Keys High School on Thursday, about 59 percent of its total population. All schools in Cross Keys cluster, which services Hispanic, Latino and immigrant population, saw absentee rates of 40 percent and above.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Yvonne Zusel, Eric Stirgus and Marlon Walker contributed to this story.