Las Vegas (AP) – Major casino companies dodged a bullet Monday as employees showed up for work on a day planned for a boycott, then joined more than 11,000 people in flag-waving rallies across Nevada calling for immigration reform.
Casino companies Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., MGM Mirage Inc., Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Station Casinos Inc. said calls to support fair reforms through petitions, T-shirts, stickers and rallies helped keep workers on the job.
„Thank you for coming to work today,“ MGM Mirage senior vice president Punam Mathur yelled to cheering protesters waving American flags at an evening rally downtown.
„You make our companies better, you make Las Vegas better,“ she said. „We want Congress to know: We want our families together.“
Police estimated the rally attracted between 6,000 and 7,000 people, who later blocked southbound traffic on a peaceful march to the Las Vegas Strip.
Last week, casino executives and the union representing 60,000 cooks, waitresses and housekeepers on the Strip urged employees not to miss work, but instead sign a petition and join an afterwork rally.
Rey Robledo, a 39-year-old banquet bartender at MGM Grand, showed up for work at 3:30 p.m. and later wore a sticker saying „I signed“ to show he signed a petition the casino planned to send to lawmakers calling for fair reforms.
„For us not coming to work I think would be disrespectful for the company that really supports us,“ he said. But he added that friends were attending the rally. „Do we wish we could be down there? Yes.“
Saul Vargas, a 40-year-old worker at Mission Industries, a laundry company that provides millions of clean sheets and towels daily to casino resorts, said workers stuck to their schedules and then joined the protest.
„They acted responsibly and nobody missed work,“ he said as the crowd dispersed. „We pay taxes, we work every day so we need our rights to be respected.“
In contrast, dozens of Hispanic small businesses in Las Vegas were shut down and construction sites were severely depleted as earlier rallies drew workers onto the streets.
Cars drove in and then quickly out of a desolate Hispanic strip mall north of downtown, where the grocer that anchors it, Mercado Del Pueblo, had a sign hanging from the door: „Closed, Cerrado.“
In Reno, at least 15 out of about 75 businesses were closed Monday along a 12-block stretch of South Wells Street, an Hispanic-dominated neighborhood southeast of downtown.
More than 5,000 protesters rallied there and police shut down streets around the federal courthouse. About 300 turned out in northeast Nevada’s rural Elko County.
American flags outnumbered Mexican flags by a 20-to-1 margin or more in Reno, where demonstrators carried signs such as one that read „When the pilgrims came to the USA, did they have green cards?“
„From George Washington to George Bush, we are all immigrants,“ Jesse Gutierrez, executive director of Nevada Hispanic Services, told the cheering crowd.
At an evening rally, thousands more marched several miles from the University of Nevada, Reno campus to a vigil in front of the federal courthouse.
„We are marching to educate ourselves, to break down the stereotypes and the bashing, to raise awareness,“ said David Pena, a UNR graduate student. „We are marching to break down the notion that borders divide people. We are one humanity and we’re all the same.“
Some businesses expected a heavy economic hit because of the boycott, which encouraged supporters not to buy or sell goods nor attend work or school.
Jaime Martinez, president of La Bonita Grocery Store Inc., which owns five Hispanic grocery stores in Las Vegas and employs 220 workers, said he would lose thousands of dollars after closing down pre-emptively on Monday.
„I didn’t want to be in a position where we don’t have workers coming or customers,“ he said, adding it was unclear whether he could pay workers for the day to take part in the boycott. „We’ll see the impact on our sales and then we’ll decide.“
At a construction site for a state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation building in Las Vegas, work slowed to a crawl with some 20 Hispanic workers estimated to be missing.
„It was a ghost town when I got here this morning,“ said William Hopkins, a 51-year-old painter foreman, who noticed most of the Hispanic landscapers were gone. „Normally there’s about 15 to 20 people doing this. I only saw three today.“
Greeley, Colo.-based general contractor Roche Constructors Inc. said 30 to 40 percent of its work force was missing at its seven job sites in southern Nevada building stores like Target, Wal-Mart and Albertson’s.
„I think everybody ought to be concerned,“ said regional vice president Wade Pope. „We do need a comprehensive immigration plan which includes securing the borders and a comprehensive guest worker program as well.“
The office of the Spanish-language El Mundo newspaper in Las Vegas closed Monday „in solidarity,“ said publisher Eddie Escobedo.
Escobedo said any economic pain felt by the Hispanic community was worth it.
Protesters have opposed a proposal that would turn illegal immigrants into felons and called for legislation that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented workers and reunite families.
„The workers feel that one day of sacrifice is worth it to have their voices heard,“ Escobedo said.