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Hundreds of Hispanics Protest in Calif.

December 13, 2003

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Hundreds of Hispanics protested the repeal of a law allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses, taking to the streets Friday in a statewide boycott of schools and businesses.

The daylong boycott was intended to highlight the economic contribution of California’s Hispanic community, the nation’s largest.

About 400 people marched into East Los Angeles, waving signs that read, in Spanish, ``Yes, we can″ and ``We want licenses now.″

Jose Bermont, 39, an electronics store owner who has been in the country illegally since 1988, said he must drive to go to work and take his five children to school.

``It’s a necessity here,″ he said. ``I’d like to tell the governor: He also was here as an immigrant, and now he’s taking away the opportunity for other immigrants.″

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger fulfilled a major campaign promise last week when he repealed the license law, signed in September by then-Gov. Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger ultimately may sign a compromise measure allowing illegal immigrants to apply for licenses after background checks.

Although only a few hundred people took part in each of the rallies around the state, supporters said the biggest effect would be people who simply stayed home and avoided shopping and public transportation. At 11.9 million, Hispanics make up about a third of the population of California.

The protest was planned to coincide with the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint.

The Los Angeles Unified School District reported absentee rates of nearly 29 percent Friday compared to 10 percent the Friday before. But San Francisco school officials said absenteeism there wasn’t unusually high.

Santa Ana school officials tried to discourage a boycott by sending notes to parents and raffling off a television for children who attended school. The district, where 92 percent of students are Hispanic, reported absenteeism was about twice its normal level, but a spokeswoman said it was unclear whether that was caused by the boycott or a flu epidemic.

In downtown Berkeley, about 200 people marched through the streets, waving Mexican flags and signs that read, ``No second-class citizenship for undocumented immigrants.″

Protester Juanni Raya decided not to work in either of her jobs as a nanny or tutor Friday, a choice that cost her about $400, she said.

``It’s about dignity,″ said Raya, 20, a Mexican immigrant who also works in the fields each summer.

``We are the people that clean the houses. We are the people that pick the food they eat. So don’t we need the right to be safe on the roads?″

In San Jose, more than 150 people marched to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Jesse Castaneda, 38, said Friday’s strike is just a start.

``It’s kind of awakening a sleeping giant,″ said Castaneda, who is Mexican-American. ``They talk about illegal immigration, and they want to get rid of all the illegal immigrants. What would happen at a state level if that were to happen? They’ll realize that we are needed here.″

One target of the boycott was Clear Channel, which owns 1,200 radio stations nationwide, including KFI of Los Angeles. Some Hispanic criticize that station because it airs a talk show that they say frequently attacks immigrant rights.

``The thoughts expressed on KFI were political in nature and were not meant to target any specific ethnic group,″ said Greg Ashlock, regional vice president of Clear Channel Radio.

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Associated Press writers Deborah Kong and Gillian Flaccus contributed to this report.