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Danbury businesses shut down, residents rally in support of immigrants

February 17, 2017 GMT

DANBURY — As the sun set on City Hall, about 500 people gathered around Latino business leaders, who told them in Spanish that they shouldn’t fear federal immigration authorities in the Hat City.

“We need to let the people know they’re safe here. We’re all with them,” said Rolando Castro, owner of several delis that closed along with dozens of other Danbury businesses Thursday for a “Day Without Immigrants” strike that was observed nationwide. “People need to know not to leave Danbury because they’re afraid.”

On Main Street, about every third store was locked, and many of those had posted signs in Spanish and English expressing solidarity with the protest.

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At the rally, residents held up signs saying “No Hate City” and “Immigrants Make America Great.” As Latino business leaders spoke through a squad-car speaker, people were still streaming into City Hall’s parking lot: Police blocked some of Dear Hill Avenue for the crowd, which kept growing, and organizers thanked the department.

Jose Arriaga was one of several protesters who said President Donald Trump’s administration was stoking deportation fears in immigrant communities.

“This guy wins the election and thinks he owns the country,” Arriaga said. “He owns Trump Tower. He doesn’t own the country ... we all own the country.”

The “Day Without Immigrants” protest aimed to demonstrate the importance of immigrants — documented or undocumented — to the U.S. economy. Latino community leaders Thursday said 40 to 100 city businesses closed after they saw their neighbors do so. Customers unaware of the observance were met by locked doors at some of their favorite shops and eating places.

Denise Bertalovitz was one of about 30 people who showed up around lunchtime at Elmer’s Diner on Padanaram Road, not knowing that owner Elmer Palma and his employees had decided the day before not to open. She missed getting the split pea soup but was understanding about the protest.

“If anyone at Elmer’s were sent back, we would be heartbroken,” Bertalovitz said. “They’re like family ... We bring the kids here for their birthdays.”

Al Doceti of New Fairfield agreed.

“So I’ll have to bounce around for lunch,” he said. “I’ll do this for Elmer anytime.”

Others weren’t so forgiving, saying the day-long closure was “silly” or “stupid” and that immigration advocates should “leave it alone.”

“I’m all for immigrants, as long as they’re legal,” said Richard Dottrres as he stood outside the diner. “But if they’re illegal, they’re illegal.”

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The strike was not called by any particular advocacy group but the idea spread rapidly this week on social media and Spanish-language TV, largely as a reaction against President Trump’s criticisms of illegal immigration and recent stepped-up enforcement efforts in many states, including New York.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the number of foreign-born workers in the U.S. has gone from nearly 3.1 million in 2007 to 25.9 million today. Those workers account for 56 percent of the increase in U.S. employment over that period, according to the Labor Department.

An estimated 1.3 million in the restaurant industry are immigrants living in the U.S. undocumented, according to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which works to improve working conditions in that industry.

Saturday, the Danbury Area Justice Network will host a dinner crawl, “Pack the House for Justice,” from 5 to 7 p.m. to support shop owners who closed Thursday.

blytton@hearstmediact.com; 203-731-3411; @bglytton