Byline: Jeff Wright and David Steves The Register-Guard
About 400 Hispanics and their allies gathered at the federal courthouse in downtown Eugene on Monday, joining thousands of others at similar rallies across the state and country in a grass-roots plea for immigration reform.
The political show of force was evident in other ways, with most Mexican-owned businesses in Eugene and Springfield closed for the day, and at least 300 students taking the day off as an excused school day in the Eugene, Bethel and Springfield school districts.
The event in Salem drew an estimated crowd of 8,000 to 10,000 people. Protests also were organized in Medford, Hood River, Cannon Beach and Portland, which had 5,000 to 9,000 turn out.
At the Eugene rally, supporters waved American and Mexican flags and chanted slogans, sang songs and held signs in both English and Spanish. One woman held a sign quoting Scripture: "Do Not Oppress the Stranger - Exodus 23:9."
Most of the gathered - including several families with babies - wore white shirts intended to symbolize solidarity and peace. Many passing motorists gave honks of approval, with only a handful offering negative comments or gestures.
Longtime activist Guadalupe Quinn, speaking first in Spanish and then English, thanked the crowd for supporting immigrant workers "who give more to this country than they take. We're not going away, and we need to be heard."
Quinn said she had never seen so many Latinos - even those at personal risk because they are not here legally - willing to stand up publicly for immigration reform. What pushed people to finally take action, she said, was the U.S. House's vote last December in support of a bill toughening penalties against illegal immigrants and those who hire them. The bill also calls for a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico.
"The House really kicked this off - without meaning to," she said.
Monday's protests were felt at local schools, where students were told they could be absent if they had advance parental approval. At least 166 students were excused from Eugene School District schools, including 58 from River Road Elementary, school officials said. Twenty-five Latino students were excused from Willamette High in the Bethel district.
In Springfield, the most noticeable absences were at Springfield High School and Hamlin Middle School. About 60 students - representing nearly a third of all Latino students - were absent at Springfield High, where Latinos make up about 15 percent of the student body.
Many Mexican-owned businesses, including those along Springfield's Main Street and Eugene's Blair Boulevard and River Road, were closed Monday. A sign at Taco Loco in Eugene, for example, said the business was closed "in Solidarity of the International Labor Day." Some Mexican-themed businesses that stayed open, including the Burrito Boy taquerias on Franklin Boulevard in Eugene and A Street in Springfield, reported slower volume. But on River Road, Margarita High of Lunches to Go Burritos said she was having a busier than usual Monday. "We agree with what's going on, …