A nationwide, one-day immi­grant boycott of jobs and businesses on Monday had an uneven impact on retail sales and productivity, but underscored the debate in Congress over the implications of overhauling U.S. immigration laws.

Retailers in cities around the country endured slower sales and some staffing shortages. In Los Angeles, where one of the day’s biggest demonstrations was held at City Hall, many apparel manufacturers were forced to close. The downtown garment district was at a standstill as streets were shut down because of the protest and port traffic was reduced.

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters participated in “A Day Without Immigrants” to highlight their economic muscle and to protest legislation in the House that would make it a felony for an estimated 11 million to 12 million illegals to be in the U.S. without documentation and also penalize employers who hire them.

The Grove shopping center in Los Angeles typically fills up at noon with the lunch crowd of tourists, locals and those who work at nearby CBS studios. But at the normally bustling Pacific Sunwear store, there was just one customer.

“Mondays are like weekends in here, usually,” said manager Omar Aguiler.

At the neighboring Gap, manager Henry Carey said he received calls from five employees who were not able to come to work because of road closings related to the demonstration.

A spokeswoman for the New Mart building, which houses apparel showrooms in the heart of the Los Angeles garment district, said: “Everything’s closed. All the restaurants, all the shops and most of the showrooms.”

Economists said the shopping boycott and jobs walkout were symbolic in their impact.

“One day is not going to send the economy into a tizzy, but I think it should send a signal that these workers are just as important as upper management in many cases,” said Richard Yamarone, chief economist at Argus Research Corp.

President George W. Bush has made immigration reform a cornerstone of his agenda. But House Republicans continue to press for their bill. In the Senate, Republican leaders are trying to break an impasse on legislation to establish a guest worker program, tighten border security and establish procedures for illegal immigrants who live and work here to earn citizenship.

This story first appeared in the May 2, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Monday: “People have the right to peacefully express their views, but the President wants to see comprehensive reform pass the Congress.”

Marchers in New York, Los Angeles and other cities carried signs in Spanish that translated to “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.” They waved Mexican and American flags. Some chanted slogans such as “Si se puede!” Spanish for “Yes, it can be done!”

Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, did not report any business disruptions by early afternoon, a spokesman said. The company employs 1.34 million people in the U.S.

UNITE HERE, the union that represents about 450,000 workers in the textiles, hotel and restaurant industries, brought the immigrant rallies to the heart of Manhattan’s Garment District. Several hundred people gathered at Seventh Avenue and 40th Street at 12:15 p.m., forming a line that stretched two city blocks. The participants held signs that read, “I Love Immigrant New York.”

Barbara Randall, executive director of the Fashion Center Business District, said of the protests: “We have not…gotten any phone calls about disruptions of services.”

Retailers began preparing for potential staffing problems days ago. J.C. Penney had a limited number of associates accept its offer to take the day off, a spokesman said. But traffic was down, particularly in Los Angeles and areas along the Mexican border.

At the Penney’s at Valley View Mall in Dallas, sales associate Jackie Perdido said there were fewer customers than usual, but she had still served 10 Hispanic customers before noon.

“Not everyone is into that thing,” said Perdido, 29, an immigrant from El Salvador who has applied for citizenship. “Actually, everyone came to work [here at the store] today.”

“It’s business as usual,” said Valley View marketing director Andrea Taylor. “All of our staff is here, and all of our contracted service employees are here.”

At the nearby Galleria Dallas, Charles and Joanne Teichman, owners of Ylang 23 jewelry store, said several Hispanic employees were working.

“We said we would adjust if anyone wanted the day off, but it hasn’t happened,” Joanne Teichman said. “We have tremendous empathy for the situation. Charles is an immigrant.”

At Plaza Fiesta, a mall in DeKalb County that serves Atlanta’s most concentrated Hispanic neighborhoods, 204 of 300 stores closed. Arturo Adonay, managing partner, said most of the stores were small, locally owned businesses.

“We sent a memo that as a business, we neither supported nor opposed the boycott,” Adonay said. “We gave business owners the choice of staying open or closing.”

At the Square One Mall in Saugus, Mass., a mid-tier mall anchored by a Sears and populated with fast-fashion junior stores, at least one retailer, Damyller, was closed with a printed sign “A Day Without Immigrants” taped to the door. Associates at Sears, Gap, Deb and Footlocker also saw slightly slower traffic.