WORTHINGTON - A group of District 518 students, along with local business owners and employees, took a stand in Worthington as well across the region Thursday to be part of “Day Without Immigrants” observances that occurred around the U.S.
The national movement, which spread through social media, encouraged immigrants across the country to not attend work or school, opening their business and avoid purchasing goods. The effort represents a response to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies pertaining to immigration.
Worthington students didn't shy away from the movement. Approximately 100 students were gathered Thursday morning along Clary Street holding signs that, among them, read “Brown and proud” and “Fight ignorance and not immigrants.” Students began arriving as early as 8 a.m., and several remained present until the end of the school day.
District 518 sophomore Mariela Castañeda was the organizer of the march. She noted that the goal was to bring awareness about equality to the school and community.
“We are just protesting for equality,” Castañeda said. “It's a day without immigrants. We are not participating in school, work or any activity.”
“We are trying to make a statement that we are equal and it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from,” freshman Kiara Castañeda said. “America was built on immigration.”
A Venezuelan descendant, junior Stephanie Lowry-Ortega, explained that the aim of the march was to grab the attention of the student body, not the administration’s. She explained that after Trump’s election, negative racial comments have increased toward immigrant students and or students who descend from immigrants.
“While we do have a lot of support from our school staff, I think it's mostly prejudice within the student body because you can still hear students making racist remarks, which is unfortunate because they are growing up around all these people that are different from them,” Lowry-Ortega said. “You would think that would allow change and acceptance, but there is still a lot of bigotry in Worthington.”
Mexico and Honduras descendant Carlos Rodriguez, a senior, was at the protest holding an Honduran flag. He said he wants students to realize the positive contributions that a diverse student body brings to the school.
“Maybe they will see the difference that we make when we are there -- to see how empty all the classrooms would be, how empty the cafeteria would be,” he said. “We are just showing them how it would be if we were not really there.”
According to Sydney Luft, a WHS student who joined a small protest on 10th Street Thursday afternoon, those who attended class Thursday did feel the difference.
“I had maybe 14 students at my class when I normally have 32,” Luft said. “So it was difficult to know that all these people are gone protesting and I felt that I needed to be out there, too.”
District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard said students will be sanctioned in accordance with the district’s attendance policy. In addition, he noted that “the immigrant issue is not a school issue,” and that the district educates every student who comes through its doors.
“The issue is that kids missed school today and they will be following the current district attendance policies,” Landgaard said.
However, students decided to stand for their cause regardless of the consequences. Oscar Martinez, who also joined the protest on 10th Street Thursday afternoon, said he will accept the consequences of missing a school day.
“They told me it will be an unexcused absence, which I am OK with because we are protesting for what we believe,” Martinez said.
Lowry-Ortega said that the protest is only one of many steps that need to be taken to make a change, and added that the support from the school district is vital. She explained that she feels the district should do campaigns to fight racism in school.
“I know the school does a lot of seminars on bullying and other issues and maybe they could address the issue of racism and prejudice more in depth,” Lowry-Ortega said. “It also starts at home -- parents need to start encouraging each other to become accepting in school. It needs to happen at home, in school -- everywhere.”
Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle said students are within their rights to express their opinions as long as protests don't become violent.
“I respect it,” Kuhle said. “It’s their right, and this is a free country to demonstrate in as long as you keep it peaceful. I think it's healthy for the community.”
Kuhle said immigrants have played an important role in the city’s economic growth, and that the city values and recognizes their contributions. Locally, however, he said there’s not much the city can do from a legislative standpoint, other than work with state lawmakers.
“I understand the concerns from the immigrant community with a lot of the rhetoric going around the nation and the state, but we need to let the legislative process move forward,” Kuhle said. “We want to make sure we stay peaceful and not do anything that might widen the gap with different cultures.”
Many immigrant-owned businesses on 10th Street also took part in the demonstration, closing their doors even if it meant losing revenue. Maria Jesus Padilla, owner of Magy and Galy Baby, a store that provides gowns for special events, decided not to open her store as a way to support the immigrant community.
“I knew that closing my store today was going to affect me, but I know it’s worth it so that's why I am doing it,” Padilla said.
Padilla said she doesn't agree with many of the ways she believes the Trump administration is targeting immigrants. As a result, she added, it’s time to come together as a community to stand up for immigrants.
Another business owner who joined the movement was Edgar Mendez, owner of a Guatemalan Christian store located on 10th Street. As well as Padilla, he wanted to show his support to immigrants and highlight the economic contributions they make.
“Even though this is not our country, we came here to live and to contribute to the country -- we pay rent, we buy groceries and we pay taxes,” Mendez said. “So I think this is a good way to show the government that we are an economic power.”
A pair of downtown Worthington business owners who remained open Thursday declined comment on the local closures.
More than a hundred workers at Worthington’s largest employer, JBS, didn’t attend work Thursday morning. According to a female JBS employee who declined to be identified, approximately 160 employees were absent.
“I didn't go to work today because I want them to realize that Hispanic people do contribute to the economy,” she said. “Maybe each one gives something small, but all together is significant. … We are just hard-working people.”
The employee added that supervisors notified the workers who planned to be absent Thursday without justification would receive a warning, or that more serious measures could be put in place.
JBS Plant Manager Brad Hellinga declined comment Thursday afternoon.
Another large employer in the region, Monogram Foods of Chandler, also has a significant number of employees who are immigrants and reside in Worthington. A representative from the company did not return a call Thursday inquiring if production at the facility was affected.