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Students Protest Anti-Immigrant Bill

<b>News</b>: Thousands of high school students walked out of their schools this week to protest the anti-immigrant House bill.
 
 
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Protests are continuing across the country against proposed changes to the nation's immigration laws. In the Los Angeles area, at least 11,000 students took part Tuesday in a second day of walkouts despite school lockdowns and threats from administrators. The majority of walkouts took place in California, where some 8,000 students from the Los Angeles Unified School District took to the streets. Over 3,000 students walked out of schools in other cities across California, as well as in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Texas, where crowds of demonstrators converged on city halls in Dallas and Houston.

Scores of schools were put under a strict lockdown to avoid the mass walkouts, but students defied the ban and marched in the streets waving flags and holding banners, many of them in the rain. A small numbers of arrests were reported as authorities began cracking down on the protests, rounding up demonstrators as truants and issuing citations. The widespread demonstrations appeared to be loosely organized, with students learning about them through mass emails, fliers, instant messages, cell phone calls and postings on MySpace.com web pages.

On Monday, as many as 40,000 students walked out of classes in Los Angeles alone. The walkouts followed a weekend of enormous rallies, including one Saturday that drew upwards of 1 million people in LA.

The Senate is preparing to begin debate this week on overhauling the nation's immigration laws. On Monday the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would allow the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country a chance to work here legally and eventually become U.S. citizens.

Written by Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy and Republican Sen. John McCain, the bill would give undocumented immigrants a chance to earn green cards and eventually obtain citizenship. In order to do this, the immigrants would have to agree to spend six years as temporary workers, pay $2,000 in fines and all back taxes, undergo criminal background checks and show proficiency in English and civics. The committee agreed to the bill by a vote of 12 to 6, with all six votes against it coming from Republicans.

Immigration reform is proving to be an issue that deeply divides not only the country but the Republican Party. The House has already approved legislation written by Republican James Sensenbrenner that has been described as the most repressive immigration bill in 70 years. House bill 4437 would, among other things, make every undocumented immigrant a felon and make it a crime for priests, nuns, health care workers and other social workers to offer help to undocumented immigrants.

Yesterday Democracy Now! reached some of the students in California who were staging walkouts. They spoke out about immigration reform and why they were taking to the streets. We go to Los Angeles to speak with two guests: Jasmine Chavez is a 17-year-old student at Montebello High School and Luis Rodriguez is a community activist, poet and writer. He is author of the award-winning memoir "Always Running: La VidaLoca: Gang Days in L.A." and, most recently, "Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Dangerous Times." He founded the Tia Chucha Press, which publishes young socially engaged poets, and is also a founder of Youth Struggling for Survival, a Chicago-based youth community organization. Rodriguez walked out of his middle school in Los Angeles during walkouts in 1968.

Juan Gonzalez: Yesterday, we reached some of the students in California who were staging walkouts. They spoke out about immigration reform and why they were taking to the streets.

Fermin Vasquez: My name is Fermin Vazquez. I'm a senior at Bauman High School. A group of friends and I decided to walk out of school after first period, because we are opposed to the law that is currently being discussed in the Senate called HR 4437.

Katie Delgado: My name is Katie Delgado. I go to Renaissance Academy. Students in L.A. County who walked out believe that the Sensenbrenner bill is utterly unconstitutional and just wouldn't work. It would make criminals out of families. It would make criminals out of our families and our relatives. And it would make felons, actually, out of anyone who helped immigrants, illegal immigrants, in any way. And seeing that 73 percent of the [inaudible] is Latino, obviously a majority of our school system is going to walk out. The majority of the kids here are going to walk out, because this affects all of us, and that affects all of our families. And this type of thing is not going to go over easily in L.A.

Leno Silva: My name's Leno Silva, and I attend Woodrow Wilson High School, which is located in East Los Angeles. Many of the high schools that are located in Los Angeles and many other states [inaudible], the high rate is basically undocumented students. For example, we could have L.A. High, they have a high percentage of undocumented students. Wilson High School, we also have a high percentage of undocumented students. And this is affecting students, because if we cannot have an education in the United States, then what's the point of our families coming down to live a so-called American dream?

Sarah: My name is Sarah, and I attend Montebello High School. We walked out today, basically because of the proposition for HR 4437. We feel like -- well, we felt the need to come over here, because, you know, we had to support people over here. They've been sleeping here for four nights in a row, you know, in the rain, through the cold and everything. And we just think that's so great, so we came out to support.

Christopher Aldrear: My name is Christopher Aldrear. I'm 16 years old, and I attend Wilson High School. And I think the walkouts are very important, because as young Latinos in our community, we all face this problem, and it will affect all of us in a major way. So, personally, I think that Latinos are not doing this just to ditch school. We're doing this because we're trying to make a difference. We're trying to be heard, you know?

Today, I attended a walkout, and it was very peaceful. And I had students coming up to me. They were telling me, "Man, what about -- what if they take my parents from me? I'm going to stay here by myself, because I was born here." And, you know, what is that? You know, the government should realize this. The government realizes this, and, you know, for some reason they're showing that they don't care. And a lot of students are walking out. My family immigrated here from Mexico. And, you know, I'm doing it for my family, I'm doing it for my friends, you know? It's going to affect all of us in a major, major way, because we're the future generation. We're the next doctors. We're the next lawyers. We're the next all that, and if we don't stand up for it and try to do something for it, then who will?

Amy Goodman: Some of the students staging walkouts this week in Los Angeles. Special thanks to our student intern, Danielle Strandburg-Peshkin, who spoke to these students last night.

For more on the protests, we go to Los Angeles, where we're joined by two guests. Jasmine Chavez is a high school student at Montebello High School. Also joining us, Luis Rodriguez, a community activist, poet and writer. Author of the award-winning memoir, "Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.," and most recently, "Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Dangerous Times." He founded the Tia Chucha Press, which publishes young socially engaged poets, is also founder of the Youth Struggling for Survival, a Chicago-based youth community organization.

We are going to begin with the student who is joining us right now, who was out on the streets this week. Jasmine Chavez, tell us what happened. How did this walkout of tens of thousands of high school students occur?

Jasmine Chavez: Well, we were not going to walk out on Monday. We figured that we needed to get organized, and we were going to wait until Tuesday or Wednesday to walk out. But students from Whittier and Rancho [inaudible], they came to support us. They came to pick us up. They came, and they waited for us very peacefully. And our teachers put us on lockdown. They weren't letting us out. So, we -- at first we agreed. But then we were watching the news, and we were seeing that it wasn't really going in good terms. So I -- personally, I jumped the fence. I heard later on that they opened the gates, because they just couldn't hold the students in. There was more than 500 students who were walking out from Montebello High School, double the number at Garfield, Roosevelt, all of these schools went to go pick us up.

AG: Why? For what reason did you walk out?

JC: Me, personally, I did it to represent my mom, because she has tried -- attempted to come to the United States from El Salvador three times as a nine-year-old. She was actually in jail, in prison, with real criminals and prostitutes and all that. All that trouble she went through as a nine-year-old to come to the United States for a better education for me, for a better life, for that to be taken away from her. And my father -- and not just representing my family, because this is -- everybody is an immigrant. This is a salad bowl. The United States is a salad bowl. It's not like the so-called white people, they come and they're the official Americans, because everybody's American. It's your human rights.

Juan Gonzalez: Jose Luis Rodriguez, I'd like to ask you, because this is an issue that I think that many Americans do not understand. There are an estimated 3 million children in the United States, who if their parents who are undocumented had to be deported would then be separated from their families possibly, because they were born -- those children were born in the United States, are U.S. citizens. And so, this is a deeply personal situation for millions of young people around the country.

Luis Rodriguez: Yeah, I think it's the destruction of families again. I think it's the destruction of the human rights that people should have to live, to survive. People, as Jasmine says, they come from poor countries, countries who have had war, have had poverty. They come for a better life. They're willing to work. They're willing to contribute. They're willing to give whatever they need to give to better this country. These aren't people who are taking away. These are people who are giving. And they've been doing this for generations.

And I think, especially in California, there's, I think, a lot of racism involved with this, the sense that we don't belong. The brown-skinned people have now become the illegals, the undocumented, the ones that nobody wants. And when you think about it, that kind of turns everything on its head, because this land was first brown-skinned. And it's kind of interesting how the native peoples are now being treated as strangers.

So, to me, I think the young people seem to understand that very deeply. They understand that they're fighting for their lives. This is not just a march for a good time. This is marches and demonstrations to show that, in fact, they're willing to fight for their life and a good, decent, dignified life.

Amy Goodman:I wanted to turn for a minute to look at how some of the corporate media has been covering the mass student walkouts. And, Juan, you also have been covering in the New York Daily News how the non-Spanish media is hardly giving this attention. It's quite astounding for not just the largest Latino protest in an area, let's say Chicago or Los Angeles, but the largest protest ever in these cities. In Arizona, the largest protest, as well. It is astounding. But yesterday, CNN was doing some coverage. This is one of the CNN anchors, Daryn Kagan, who made this comment on CNN live: "Walking into the Harbor Freeway at any hour, let alone rush hour, not the smartest move. Perhaps these kids could use some more time in class to work on the smartness."

AG: I wanted to get the comment of Jasmine, saying maybe it's not so smart to walk in the street, that you should be learning something in class.

JC: Well, I agree with her. And I go to school every day. And that's why I'm here, to make sure that after this I go to class. But if you think about it, they're saying that a lot of schools, quote,unquote, are ditching. But if they're ditching, why did we march up to 11 miles to get to city hall? Why did we do that? Couldn't we just have gone home? If we didn't care, why did we go through all that trouble? Why were we there supporting?

Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez are the hosts of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!