HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) - Illegal immigrants and their allies gathered Monday for marches, prayers and demonstrations on a planned national day of economic protest, boycotting work, school and shopping to show their importance to the country.
In one of the early demonstrations, about 1,200 people marched in the rural city of Homestead, home to one Florida's largest Mexican immigrant populations and many major growers of fruits, vegetables and nursery plants.
Jose Cruz, 23, from El Salvador, said he took off the day from his construction job to attend the rally.
"If I lose my job, it's worth it," said Cruz, who has a temporary work permit that is granted to many Central Americans. "It's worth losing several jobs to get my papers."
Others were working Monday but buying nothing as part of the economic boycott around the country. Some planned to attend protests during lunch breaks or after work. Church services, candlelight vigils and picnics also were planned.
Grassroots organizers are protesting stricter immigration laws that are being debated in Congress, and they hope Monday's events will raise awareness about immigrants' economic power.
In Carmel, Ind., Jeff Salsbery said about 25 Hispanic workers skipped work at Monday at his landscaping company.
"I'm not very happy this morning," Salsbery said. "We're basically shut down in our busiest month of the year. It's going to cost me thousands of dollars today."
Some big businesses were shutting down operations: Six of 14 Perdue Farms plants will close; Gallo Wines in Sonoma, Calif., was giving its 150 employees the day off; Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat producer, planned to shut five of its nine beef plants and four of six pork plants.
In Denver, El Centro Humanitario, a nonprofit set up to help day laborers, was closed Monday because its managers were helping organize a rally downtown expected to attract tens of thousands of people.
But there was little change at Labor Finders, a temporary office with several offices in the Denver area, spokesman Tim Kaffer said.
"The people who come in here really can't afford to take a day off," he said. "Their daily pay just takes care of their hotel and food."
Thanks to the success of previous rallies plus media attention, planning for Monday's events, collectively called Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes - A Day Without Immigrants - is widespread, though fragmented.
In New Orleans, several hundred demonstrators attended a rally, carrying signs that read "Proud to rebuild" and "We come to work."
Derrick Trundle, 29, of Metairie, La. said he sends money to his mother in Honduras every month.
"We don't come here to do anything bad," Trundle said. "Just support our family because our country is so very poor."
In each of New York City's five boroughs, thousands of workers were expected to take work breaks shortly after noon to link arms with shoppers, restaurant-goers and other supporters for about 20 minutes.
"This will symbolize the interdependence of all of us, not just immigrants, but all of society," said Chung-Wa Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.
In California, a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said a boycott would "hurt everyone," while Democratic state senators passed a resolution supporting walkouts.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa urged students to stay in school and advised protesters against waving flags of their native countries.
"You should wave the American flag," he said. "It's the flag of the country that we all are proud of and want to be a part of. Don't disrespect the traditions of this country."
Activists in Florida said many immigrants were concerned about recent federal raids, in which hundreds of immigrants with criminal backgrounds were rounded up in Florida and throughout the Midwest.
"We're not officially coordinating a work stoppage. We are leaving it up to every individual. We don't want people to lose a job, but we want to encourage people to stand up for their rights," said Maria Rodriguez, head of the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
Opponents of illegal immigration spent the weekend building a fence to symbolize their support of a secure border. About 200 volunteers organized by the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps of California worked on a 6-foot barbed-wire fence along a quarter-mile stretch of rugged terrain near the U.S.-Mexico border about 50 miles east of San Diego.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged immigrants to attend Mass instead of boycotting, and suggested that churches toll their bells in memory of immigrants who died trying to come to the U.S. They also urged students to stay in school.
Denver-area contractor Chuck Saxton, who hires temporary workers, is sympathetic to the movement.
"I'm going to go to support them. These guys come here, they work hard and they're honest," he said. "They provide a vibrancy to our economy and our country that is fading."