Student Well-Being

Students Continue to Fuel Activism on Immigration Policy

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 18, 2006 5 min read
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Tens of thousands of Latino students helped fuel rallies across the country last week against federal proposals to crack down on immigrants who are in the United States illegally.

It was the third week of such rallies, which have put some school officials into politically delicate situations, such as having to decide whether to punish protesters, find ways to keep would-be protesters in school, and clarify policies on community-service credits.

“This shows our people have a voice,” 16-year-old Peter Canales, a junior at High Point High School in Beltsville, Md., said during an April 10 rally here in front of the U.S. Capitol. He was joined by his mother, an aunt, siblings, and cousins.

The event in the nation’s capital, which organizers said drew an estimated 500,000 people, appeared to attract primarily Latino workers and their families. Many of them criticized a bill passed by the House of Representatives in December that would make it a crime to be in the United States illegally and to assist an undocumented immigrant. They also called for a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants.

It seems that some leading lawmakers, even though Congress is on a spring recess, have been listening.

Two days after the April 10 rallies, Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., issued a joint statement saying they don’t support the provision of the House bill that makes being in the United States illegally a felony, which is now a civil offense.

And the week before, in an April 5 letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Republican from Wisconsin and the lead sponsor of the House immigration bill, and other GOP leaders said the House bill doesn’t intend to make it a crime to offer humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants.

“Many have misconstrued the House’s good-faith effort to bring human traffickers to justice as a way to criminalize humanitarian assistance efforts. The House bill does no such thing, nor did it intend to,” the letter said.

U.S. senators’ efforts to reform immigration policy collapsed on April 7 as Congress began its spring recess. Lawmakers are expected to take up the matter again after they reconvene April 24. (“Immigration Proposals Could Aid School Hiring Efforts,” April 12, 2006)

Credits and Absences

Because the rally here last week started at 4 p.m., and many students in the area were on spring break, students didn’t have to miss school to participate.

But the demonstration still provoked controversy in at least one Washington-area school system.

Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the 140,000-student Montgomery County, Md., schools, put out a memo in advance of the rally saying students could receive service-learning credit for participating in immigration demonstrations outside of school hours.

Brian Edwards, a spokesman for the district, said that after conservative radio-talk-show hosts mentioned Mr. Weast’s memo on the air, officials received hundreds of angry calls—many of them, he said, from people who used ethnic slurs—to criticize the school system for appearing to take a position in the immigration debate.

According to Mr. Edwards, Mr. Weast was actually clarifying a state policy that considers student involvement in political advocacy, whether working for Democratic or Republican causes, as qualifying for student-service-learning credit.

Elsewhere, in districts that weren’t on spring break last week, educators often struggled to find ways to keep students in school.

Peter Marshall, a Spanish teacher at Lincoln High School in Des Moines, Iowa, helped prevent a walkout by inviting Sandra Sanchez, an immigration specialist for the American Friends Service Committee in Des Moines, to speak at a school assembly April 7 about the immigration debate. “I’ve heard kids say, ‘We would have walked out if it wasn’t for that,’ ” said Mr. Marshall.

In some places, students skipped school on April 10 to attend rallies with their families.

About 11,500 students in Arizona’s Tucson Unified district—19 percent of its 61,000 students—didn’t show up at school on that day, according to Karen Gallagher, the district’s executive assistant for public information. She said the normal absentee rate for that day of the week is 7 percent. School officials assumed many attended the rally that was scheduled in the city during school hours, she said.

Capitol Rally

Like thousands of other Latinos across the country, Mr. Canales, the Beltsville, Md., junior, had joined a demonstration at his high school to protest the House immigration bill.

But at the big rally on the National Mall last week, Mr. Canales participated with his family.

When Vivian Ocampo, an 8th grader from Lake Ridge Middle School, led the Mall crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance in English, Mr. Canales and his younger siblings and cousins joined in with strong voices. While they were born in the United States, their parents emigrated from El Salvador, and they said they had relatives and friends who were undocumented.

The crowd had practiced the pledge in English at least twice before the rally began.

Claudia Sandoval, who had left school the previous week with about 30 students to join a protest on Capitol Hill against the House bill, also came to the rally with family members on Monday of last week. The junior of Salvadoran heritage at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, here in Washington, said she had received a three-day suspension for her involvement in the April 3 protest.

When asked why a school with a mission of promoting civic engagement penalized students for attending a protest, Saskia Pallais, the development director for the school, explained that teachers had organized students to participate in immigrant-rights protests after school and on April 10, but students who joined demonstrations during school hours without prior parental permission faced the school’s standard disciplinary action.

Gathered with cousins, friends, and an uncle on the National Mall, Ms. Sandoval said: “Students are doing good in coming to the protest. I thought students wouldn’t care about this. A lot of students came because they don’t want the law to pass.”

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