SAN JOSE, Calif. – A chef at a Mexican restaurant, Alvaro Tejeda skipped work Dec. 12 to protest the repeal of a law allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses.
Tejeda expected he might receive a warning, or get demoted. Instead, he says, he was fired the next day.
Advocates say they've heard from dozens of workers like Tejeda who claim they lost their jobs because they missed work to join the one-day economic strike. Though it's been tough getting by without a job, many who were fired say they believe the boycott was a success, and some are hoping to join similar actions planned for May and December
"The more we are, the more we'll be able to make ourselves be heard," said Tejeda, a 23-year-old, undocumented Mexican immigrant who lives in San Jose. "We have to support each other."
Tejeda's former employer, El Torito Restaurant (search), issued a statement saying employees were terminated because they violated a company attendance policy. Tejeda says he told his supervisor ahead of time he might observe the boycott.
It's unclear how many people participated overall; organizers estimate tens of thousands joined throughout the state.
Salvador Sandoval, a founder of Latino Focus (search) in Redwood City, said his group has received about 150 phone calls from people who lost their jobs after the strike. Hispanic organizations have held community workshops to help people find new jobs and get training and legal help, said Sandoval who has spoken at five such meetings.
If their employer has a leave policy, employees cannot be denied a day off from work because they plan to engage in political activities, said Tomas Margain, a San Francisco attorney who spoke at one of the workshops.
But most workers he talked to didn't ask for, or were denied, time off that day and may have little recourse, he said. Some mistakenly believed their employer supported the boycott, while others thought they were secure because so many co-workers were missing work. Some just decided to take a risk.
Organizers of the boycott say they have been trying to help workers get their jobs back. In Northern California, activists heard from more than 400 people who lost their jobs, and all but 30 were reinstated after advocates spoke with their employers, said Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican American Political Association (search). In Southern California, the group has heard from about 20 employees; half got their jobs back, he said.
"With the literally tens of thousands of workers that participated, it's a minute number of people," Lopez said. "With every social movement, there's always a byproduct of direct action."
The economic strike underlined the importance of immigration issues in this state, where one in four residents is foreign-born. Critics have said allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's license is "a free pass" that could allow terrorists and other criminals into the state.
Though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) signed legislation repealing the driver's license law, he has indicated he is willing to consider a similar bill if it had more security safeguards.
Tejeda, who has lived in the United States for eight years, said police have impounded his cars four times after finding he had no driver's license and no insurance. Each time, he had to pay about $800 to get his car back and $600 in fines.
"There are a lot of times we have to take our child to the doctor. Sometimes we live faraway from our jobs. At night sometimes there are no buses. We have to drive," Tejeda said. With driver's licenses, "the government would have a better eye on us."
Undocumented immigrants weren't the only ones in the protest.
"It's important to show those people that do not have documents that the rest of us are there supporting them," said Gustavo Torres, who skipped work at a window manufacturing plant in Hollister, a city about 90 miles south of San Francisco.
He was one of about 30 workers who joined the strike after a supervisor told them to "get together" and "support your cause," Torres said. "We had the feeling he supported us."
Instead, many were fired, he said. The company did not return calls from The Associated Press.
Activists will advise people to ask for a day off well ahead of the next strike, said Isabel Villavicencio, an organizer with San Jose-based Community Volunteers. They're also compiling a list of activities -- not buying grocery or gas, for example -- that people can choose from, without risking their jobs, Sandoval said.
Though she lost her job at a fast food restaurant after the strike, Nicolasa Chacon of Menlo Park said she's determined to join the next action.
"I will tell our people to gain courage and participate in the boycott," she said. "We have to take the risk."