About 1,000 Northern Virginia high school students skipped classes for at least half a day last week to march from a public plaza to the Arlington County Courthouse here, symbolically uniting with peers from across the country to protest federal legislation that would crack down on undocumented immigrants.
“We just want people to hear our voice,” said Estefania Vidal, a senior at Washington-Lee High School. Ms. Vidal, who is of Mexican heritage, was one of the roughly 20 student organizers wearing yellow T-shirts during the March 30 rally.
“A lot of people say they are only high school students. … Politicians know we’re the future,” she said. “We’re going to be voting.”
The main target of the students was HR 4437, a bill approved in December by the U.S. House of Representatives that emphasizes stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws. They object to how the bill would make being undocumented a felony, and make it a crime to help illegal immigrants.
They were not very familiar with the measure approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 27, which doesn’t have those provisions. The Senate bill provides a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, a temporary-worker program, and increased enforcement of immigration laws.
“HR 4437 criminalizes aid,” said Stephanie Paredes, a senior at Washington-Lee High School, who was one of the organizers. “As human beings, we’re going to help other human beings.”
One girl carried a sign that said, “Thank you, HR 4437, for reuniting us.”
Some students addressed broader issues about immigration.
Noelia Machado, a junior from Bolivia who attends Arlington’s Yorktown High School, worked with her sister and a friend to put about 40 handmade fliers on the windshields of cars parked along the march route that said, “We are here to stay.”
Another student, emphasizing the contributions of Latinos, had a sign listing various foods, including tamales, chalupas, and pupusas.
The protest attracted primarily Latinos, some of whom wrapped themselves in the flags of countries from which they or their parents had emigrated. The student leaders said they had planned the march in the local public library the previous day and promoted it through word of mouth, cellphones, and the Internet.
Along the two-mile walk, brown-skinned construction workers and service-staff members stood outside their places of employment with broad grins. Some raised a fist in support of the students.
The local police department cooperated with the students, even though the youths had not sought a permit for the march. “They are young and don’t understand what the process is, so we are going with the flow, and making sure they are safe,” said Paul Larson, an Arlington County policeman.
He said the school board of the 18,000-student Arlington County district planned to send buses to the end of the march to transport students back to their schools.
Five girls from Yorktown High School marched with the names of their countries of origin taped to their clothes: Bolivia, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Guatemala. They said they moved to the United States when they were between the ages of 12 and 16. Four of them said they are living in the country illegally. Their parents work in construction, or cook and serve in restaurants.
“We aren’t criminals,” said one of the girls in Spanish.
“We have a dream that we want to carry out,” said another.
Meanwhile, some teachers here in Northern Virginia—an increasingly diverse suburban area across the Potomac River from Washington—capitalized on students’ interest in the national debate over immigration.
In first period at Annandale High School in the 166,000-student Fairfax County school system, 15-year-old Carlos Galicia, whose parents are from Mexico, and 16-year-old Abigail Chavez, whose parents came from Bolivia, took part in a discussion about immigration during a U.S. government class. John H. Hawes, the teacher of the class, facilitated the conversation.
The two sophomores had joined about 200 schoolmates in a 45-minute sit-down protest during the school day on their campus earlier in the week. But they and the other protesters decided to avoid disciplinary measures that the school’s principal had promised if they held additional demonstrations on school grounds.
Mr. Hawes asked students questions about the context of the immigration debate in Congress. He asked them about the relationship between President Bush and President Vicente Fox of Mexico, about characteristics of the Democratic and Republican parties, and what the politics of immigration might look like in a decade.
He asked Mr. Galicia if the debate over immigration would end.
“Immigration is very big. It’s a very controversial topic,” said the student, who is writing a class paper in which he’s trying to prove that the United States needs immigrants. “It keeps coming up.”
“Does it end in your lifetime?” asked Mr. Hawes.
“I don’t think so,” Mr. Galicia responded.
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Annandale High studentswho led the sit-down protest but stayed in school while other area high schoolers marched said they felt good about what students across the United States had accomplished in such marches and rallies last week.
They said they had helped inform a lot of people about an immigration debate that many Americans were ignoring.
Students have gotten more attention for their cause, they suggested, by standing up in their schools and staging local protests than if they’d converged on Washington. “It’s good for people to know students care,” said Donald Suver, a sophomore and a non-Latino who joined the Annandale High protest.
“It shows students have a certain amount of power,” said 16-year-old Vanessa Cerro, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Peru.
“I was out there because everybody deserves a chance,” she added. “No one should be considered a criminal. People came here and work hard.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week as Students Express Concerns in Public Square, Classrooms