CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Thousands of protesters shut down streets and stopped traffic Thursday afternoon as they marched through uptown Charlotte for the "Day Without Immigrants" movement that took place in cities nationwide.
The rally started in Marshall Park and grew as they marched to the Government Center. The crowd decided to take the long route to make sure their message was heard, as they chanted "No Papers, No Fear."
City leaders estimate 7,000 to 8,000 people took part in the protest.
Many protesters chanted against Immigration and Customs Enforcement and President Donald Trump's immigration policies. Last week, ICE agents told Channel 9 that they only target criminals. President Donald Trump made a campaign promise to go after undocumented criminal immigrants.
Protesters wanted everyone to know that Charlotte is a city full of immigrants.
"We do make a difference in this country and I think that many parents come to this country because they want a better future for their kids," said protester Jennifer Sorco.
The crowd was also younger. Many students skipped school to be a part of the demonstration. Some children in the crowd also said they're scared.
"I don't want my mom and dad to go away from me. I don't want families to be separated," said one child.
Channel 9 spoke to one 18-year-old who is in the country legally. He said he's going to college to be a dental hygienist and said people treat him like he's in the U.S. illegally. A 13-year-old told Channel 9 her mother is here illegally and worries about her mother being deported.
Many of the protesters made a point to say they have jobs and pay taxes.
"All the immigrants, refugees, everyone around. Not just Latinos, we're representing Muslims. We got to stop the hate and there's a lot of misconceptions about whether we pay taxes. We do pay taxes," protester Raquel Garcia said.
Sergio Lopez proudly held his American flag. The Mexican immigrant came to the United States 17 years ago.
“I come like everybody, just cross the border to get a better life,” he said.
He and his wife now consider Charlotte home. He said he was concerned about immigration changes and recent ICE arrests.
“Biggest concern is, just to get an arrest for the ICE, and have to go back Mexico without my child,” he said.
President Trump has promised to remove criminal undocumented immigrants.
ICE agents have arrested 190 people across Georgia and the Carolinas, and 127 had prior criminal convictions.
On Thursday night, some said they have compassion for those who marched and understand their concerns, but also see the need for immigration policy.
“We're all here in America, make America work and everyone has an important role, but I do agree we need to keep our borders safe,” Linda Obertin said.
Click PLAY to watch Chopper 9 over the march
Police response to protest
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police told Channel 9 the protest was bigger than expected but under control.
Police expected an estimated crowd of 500 people, but city leaders estimate between 7,000-8,000 people took part in the march.
CMPD quickly called in extra officers to re-route traffic ahead of the parade route. Some of those streets included Tryon, MLK, Trade and Fourth streets near the Government Center. Several officers were also out on bike patrol.
Officials said despite the large turnout, there weren't any major issues.
"We were hopeful that our protest season ended in 2016 but it doesn't look like that's going to happen, so we'll continue our efforts in 2017 to help facilitate the First Amendment rights to citizens of Charlotte," said CMPD Maj. Gerald Smith.
There were a couple of incidents during the march. One incident involved a homeless man trying to disrupt the protests. The second happened when a protester jumped and punched a man in a Connectivity NC truck after the driver was seen taunting the protesters.
Police said no arrests were made.
Immigrant businesses in Charlotte close for strike
Dozens of local businesses refused to open in Charlotte on Thursday in a protest called "a day without immigrants."
The national strike called for local businesses to remain closed and immigrant employees to take the day off, in protest of President Trump's immigration policies.
Compare Foods closed all its North Carolina stores to join in the protest.
Las Delicias Bakery in east Charlotte is one of the local businesses participating. The owner of the bakery said fewer people have been coming into the store since rumors of an immigration crackdown spread last week.
"It has been very sad," said Manolo Betancur, owner of Las Delicias. "Everything comes to your mind. What are we going to do? What happens if ICE agents come around here?"
Cesar Vasquez told Channel 9 he was fired Thursday for not showing up to work. But he said being at the protest was a bigger priority.
"It is important because I am supporting them. I am supporting them 100 percent. They are my blood. I am not Mexican. I am Colombian, but I am still Hispanic," Vasquez said.
City of Charlotte response to immigration enforcement
The city of Charlotte released a lengthy statement in response to concerns about immigration enforcement and the march.
The city tried to ease people's fears over reports of ICE agents targeting immigrants. Leaders said recent enforcement actions have gotten signficant attention because of the president's executive order and said, according to ICE, those actions are consistent with previous activity and are not a major new threat.
The city went on to say it is in compliance with all state and federal immigration laws and because of that, the city does not need to change its policies and practices toward immigrants and does not foresee any changes under current law.
The city of Charlotte credited its tremendous growth to migrants who have chosen to make their homes in the Queen City. The statement said the city will continue its tradition of welcoming newcomers to the community while respecting state and federal laws.
About 450 students absent from Nations Ford Elementary School
CMS said approximately 450 students were absent today from Nations Ford Elementary School, a school with a large population of Hispanic students.
Some classrooms had two or three students. Many parents kept their kids out for a “Day Without Immigration.”
CMS sent a message to parents Wednesday that said it was aware of immigration day and asked parents to talk with their children about the importance of attending school each day.
This message was sent to parents from principals:
Dear school families,
"Our focus is to provide your child with a quality education in a safe and orderly environment. I believe t it is important for our school to keep the lines of communication open with families and to make you aware when questions or issues arise.
"Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been made aware of a growing national movement asking our immigrant families to not send their children to school tomorrow, Thursday, Feb. 16. While we are extremely sensitive to challenges that some of our families are facing, we are asking you to talk with your children about the expectations we have for them at (school) and the importance of attending school each day.
"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have assured our superintendent that schools and school bus stops are safe from any immigration law enforcement activity involving our students. Again, CMS is asking for the support of all families to ensure that all students are in class every school day."
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