WASHINGTON, D.C. — Carlos Eduardo Espina walked to the White House on Monday morning a TikTok star with over 2.5 million followers. By day’s end, the 23-year-old Texan from College Station had become an icon of immigrant rights organizing.
“It’s cold,” said Espina as he strolled through downtown Washington, D.C., at 6:30 a.m. “I’m not used to this kind of weather.” It was 27 degrees outside and windy.
Weeks earlier, Espina came up with the idea to spearhead “A Day Without Immigrants” on Valentine’s Day. The rationale was simple: the holiday relies on immigrant labor, so what if immigrants simply didn’t show up to work?
“Hopefully a lot of people show up,” Espina told Latino Rebels. “So hopefully we get a good turnout and the weather doesn’t discourage people.”
As Espina marched toward the White House and the rally he had called on the Internet to embrace he muttered the lyrics from “La Casita” by Banda MS in small, misty clouds of warm breath out into the bitter cold Potomac morning:
Tras de un sueño
Que no he logrado
Que no he
Getting closer to the White House, a protester for another cause —the parent of a murdered student of a middle school massacre in Parkland, Florida— climbed a construction crane on 15th Street, prompting a Secret Service lockdown of Lafayette Square, the location Espina had planned the protest.
“Hopefully, they open it before everyone gets here,” mused Espina before joining Univision anchor Satcha Pretto for a series of segments on Despierta America on the H Street sidewalk adjacent to the square.
Vía @pabloreports @carlos_eduardo_espina on @Despierta América #daywithoutimmigrants
Within an hour of Espina’s arrival, TikTok influencers of his generation who are active in the immigrant rights space on the platform began to trickle in. Smartphones were unlocked. Apps were opened, and soon young immigrants began to broadcast live on TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook.
By 8 a.m., protesters began to arrive by the dozens from all over the United States. Espina had wondered aloud over a burger and fries on Sunday evening what it would take for his rally to be considered a success. Some in the immigrant rights movement had questioned whether a TikTok star could convert online engagement into real, live direct action. For the next three hours on Monday morning, Espina removed any doubt about his organizing power on the platform he had mastered.
— Pablo Manríquez (@PabloReports) February 14, 2022
Columbus, Ohio. Boston, Massachusetts. New York. New Jersey. California. Arizona. Indiana. Immigrants streamed into the sidewalk adjacent to Lafayette Square for over two hours, at times spilling into H Street, until the square was finally opened to them at 10:54 a.m., an hour after the permit had taken effect.
The permit, among other logistical considerations for the rally, had been handled by an advocacy coalition of believers in Espina, including RAICES, NICE New York, FIRM Action, and Immigration Hub. Still, to the protesters arriving in droves, Espina was the reason they were there. Espina was the attraction.
“What’s new about this rally is that I’ve seen a lot of influencers involved,” said Roberto Pérez, a rally goer from Virginia. “I’ve organized rallies in the past with organizations but have never seen anyone do what Carlos is doing, someone who has followers like in the old stories of leaders who the common people are drawn to.”
Across the nation, immigrants from all over the world committed Espina’s call to action.
“This day is important because it is an opportunity to highlight the immense contributions immigrants make to every facet of society, including in the legal profession,” said Arabi Hassan, a Harvard law student said from Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I see my immigrant peers bring a critical perspective into the ways the legal system systematically excludes immigrant communities, something that does not get discussed nearly enough in our classes. I see my immigrant peers provide legal services to low-income communities, advocate for immigration reform, and pave the path for the next generation of lawyers. Our presence, our perspectives, and our advocacy are needed.”
“I’m also participating in this demonstration for all the immigrants in my life,” Hassan continued, “including my dad, who can’t afford to take the day off, and whose labor this country runs on.”
“It’s finally ’A Day Without Immigrants,’” said Prem Singh in Boston. Singh took the day off work to protest.
— prem singh (@prems_tweet) February 14, 2022
“I’m excited to see immigrants come together on this day. I’m going to the protest in Boston to show that documented and undocumented immigrants are together and we face many hard challenges in this country. Immigrants are dying. We are being deported. We suffer so many other hardships in this country. The time for relief is now.,” Singh added.
In San Francisco, the protest at the Golden Gate Bridge was interrupted by bridge patrol.
“They blocked off parking lots and wouldn’t let us carry signs,” said Sumana Kaluvai, who helped organize the event with Espina. “This protest is different than the others because it is completely driven by the people, not organizations or politicians. These protests are happening because the people are absolutely fed up and have lost trust in these institutional bodies. It is now in the hands of the people to demand change and they are doing just that. I’m confident that ‘A Day Without Immigrants’ is just the start for this movement.”
— Sumana (@sumzzzie) February 14, 2022
Back in D.C., Janet Nolasco echoed Sumana in Lafayette Square.
“What makes this march different from previous marches is that this march was crated by the immigrant community. Before many marches were made by organizations, by groups, and by volunteers, but this one was made by el pueblo,” Nolasco said.
On Twitter, members of the green card backlog community kicked into high gear just after 11 a.m. Eastern, creating a tool that helped drive the #DayWithoutImmigrants to the top 10 on the platform’s trending topics.
— Rohit Sharma (@DcWalaDesi) February 14, 2022
“This is our contribution to a Day Without Immigrants,” texted one backlogger who wished to remain anonymous.
At noon, the permit for the rally expired but the Secret Service allowed the event to continue for another half-hour before clearing Lafayette Square of rallygoers. Latino Rebels caught up with Espina as he was ushered in a wave of adoring supporters (“¡AQUÍ ESTAMOS CON CARLOS!” one shouted over the din).
“This is great considering the short amount of time that we’ve had to throw this together, but with better planning, this rally of hundreds of people could be hundreds of thousands,” Espina said.
Pablo Manríquez is the Washington correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports