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Thousands in Hall participate in national A Day Without Immigrants protest
A sign is posted on a locked door Thursday at Restaurante y Taqueria Lupita in Gainesville. The Mexican restaurant was one of many Hispanic establishments in Gainesville closed Thursday in support of the A Day Without Immigrants protest. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Thousands of Hispanic students stayed home from school. Hundreds of Hispanic workers did not report to their jobs. Businesses in Hall County’s Hispanic community kept their doors closed. It was all in support of A Day Without Immigrants national protest Thursday.

The show of solidarity was meant to send a message to leaders throughout the nation about how critical the immigrant population is to the U.S. economy and way of life.

Ruffino Toribia closed Restaurante y Taqueria Lupita that’s been open for almost five years to show his support for the day of protest. Customers who showed up to the restaurant at the Vista Al Cielo strip mall on Atlanta Highway found a sign on the front door that read in Spanish, “Today we join the cause of a day without Latinos.”

“I hope this leads to something good that will benefit everyone,” Toribia said. “We need comprehensive immigration reform so that people can come out of the shadows.”

Toribia’s brother, Manuel, also helps out at the family-owned restaurant. He said the goal of  Thursday’s protest is to show that Hispanics make a big contribution to the economy.

“We lost a day’s wages, but the state and federal government lost thousands of dollars in tax revenue,” Manuel Toribia said.

Another restaurant owner, Luis Sepulveda, closed Haydee’s Cafe, at 3204 Atlanta Highway, where he serves Mexican food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sepulveda said his six employees supported his decision to shut down for a day.

“It’ll hurt me right now,” Sepulveda said of his decision. “In the long run, I hope it will help us all.”

Ana Alvarado, an employee at Patty’s Hair Salon, located at 1784 Atlanta Highway, said she watched the TV all day because no customers walked through the door.

“Many of the businesses around here closed today,” Alvarado said. “I think this protest is going to make an impact. Without Hispanics, a lot of labor in this country doesn’t get done.”

More than 6,000 public school students in the Gainesville and Hall County school systems failed to show up for class, officials said.

And some of those who showed up at Gainesville High School still found a way to advocate for Hispanics.

Juana Alfaro, an 11th-grader at Gainesville High, said “Trump can’t deport us all.” That’s why she participated in Thursday afternoon’s anti-Trump protest at the school.

“It was made to show that we're all in this together. Hispanic, black, white, Asian, it doesn't matter,” Alfaro said.

Mirta Jimenez, 16, decided to attend the rally on behalf of her parents.

“I wanted to stand up for my mom’s rights, because she wasn’t able to participate, but the main reason was because my dad was taken away from me when I was only 10 years old,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez’s father was deported.

Students were released after their third-period class to the “instructional focus” portion of the day, where students who need tutoring can get it. For students who don’t need tutoring, it’s a free period, so they weren’t technically missing class.

They gathered by the big red elephant, between the library and Career, Technical and Agricultural Education building, and the rally was over by 2 p.m.

Alfaro said not every student participated. She said most participating students were calm, but a few students were throwing water bottles and small rocks.

Gainesville High Principal Tom Smith sent out an email Wednesday regarding the boycott to faculty and staff members.

“These are always very tricky situations to navigate,” Smith wrote in the email. “I hope our students chose to attend school tomorrow and stay in class all day, but things don’t always play out like we hope … We have chosen the wait and see approach … I hope this is the right decision, but you never know about these things until the 3:30 bell rings.”

Smith said some students were grateful for being able to exercise their right to protest.

“Like anything of this nature, there were those who were very appreciative of the opportunity to have a voice and there were those just glad to be outside and have a chance to be loud,” Smith said.

“I had several students who came to my office to say thank you for not trying to run them off and giving them a brief moment to express themselves. Everyone left when asked and went to their fourth-period class.”

Hall County Schools spokesman Gordon Higgins reported that 4,183 of the district’s 11,524 Hispanic students were absent Thursday, which accounted for 77.7 percent of the school system’s absences for the day. Hispanic students account for 42.6 of all students in the system.

The typical rate of absenteeism at county schools is 5 percent of the total enrollment of 27,055, or about 1,352 students. It was almost four times that much Thursday.

In the Gainesville school system, 90 percent of the 2,295 students absent Thursday were Hispanic, according to district spokeswoman Lynn Jones. She said the day before only 406 students, or 5 percent of total enrollment, missed classes.

Higgins said the Hall school district was aware through social media that many Hispanic students would be staying home because of the protest.

“Given that information, the district had prepared our principals for a possible spike in absenteeism,” Higgins said.

Protesters gathered at the corners of Jesse Jewell and E.E. Butler parkways Thursday from the afternoon through early evening. Gabriella Gonzalez started the protest at 4 p.m. Her father is an immigrant from Mexico. She is from San Antonio, Texas, and has lived in Hall County for 16 years.

“Why not make your voice heard?” she said. “There are people out here voicing for others that can’t.”

Sheri Torres, Gabriella Gonzalez’s mother, was also part of the protest.

“It’s not right, what they’re doing. Wanting to deport them, separate families,” Torres said. “A long time ago there were no borders … We’re supposed to be one nation under God, but it seems like everybody isn’t being very Christian or following what they should.”

Edwin Perez, who was also part of that same protest, also challenged the current political climate in regard to immigration.

“I feel like it’s not right,” Perez said. “I know some immigrants do bad stuff but not all of them, for you to deport every single one of them.”

Fieldale Farms President Tom Hensley said early estimates of absent employees were around 10 percent, or roughly 300 employees. Later in the day, Hensley said the number dropped to about 4 percent, double the normal amount.

“People came in late, I guess, to make a statement, but we’re basically running full,” he said.

Hensley said the company would speak to each person Friday to find out the reason for missing work.

“Of course, we encourage everyone to come to work so they can get paid and support their families,” he said.

Times staff writer Nick Watson, copy editor Steven Welch and the Associated Press contributed to this report.