Student Immigrants Use Civil Rights-Era Strategies

Russell Contreras, Google News, June 2, 2010

They gather on statehouse steps with signs and bullhorns, risking arrest. They attend workshops on civil disobedience and personal storytelling, and they hold sit-ins and walk out of class in protest. They’re being warned that they could even lose their lives.

Students fighting laws that target illegal immigrants are taking a page from the civil rights era, adopting tactics and gathering praise and momentum from the demonstrators who marched in the streets and sat at segregated lunch counters as they sought to turn the public tide against racial segregation.

“Their struggle then is ours now,” said Deivid Ribeiro, 21, an illegal immigrant from Brazil and an aspiring physicist. “Like it was for them, this is about survival for us. We have no choice.”

Undocumented students, many of whom consider themselves “culturally American” because they have lived in the U.S. most of their lives, don’t qualify for federal financial aid and can’t get in-state tuition rates in some places. They are drawing parallels between themselves and the 1950s segregation of black and Mexican-American students.

“I think it’s genius,” said Amilcar Shabazz, chairman of the W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. “If you want to figure out how to get your story out and change the political mood in America, everybody knows the place to start your studies is the civil rights movement.”

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The movement has gained attention of Congress. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in April, asking her to halt deportations of immigrant students who could earn legal status under DREAM, which stands for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors act, and which they’re sponsoring.

Last month, three illegal immigrant students demanding to meet with Arizona Sen. John McCain about DREAM were arrested and later detained for refusing to leave his Tucson office. High school and college students in Chicago and Denver walked out of class this year to protest Arizona’s tough new law requiring immigrants to carry registration papers. In December, immigrant students staged a “Trail of Dreams” march from Miami’s historic Freedom Tower to Washington, D.C., to raise support for DREAM.

Similar student immigrant groups have sprung up at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Houston.

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In Massachusetts, hundreds of student activists have gone through training by Marshall Ganz, a public policy lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School and a former organizer with the late Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers movement. At special camps, students attend workshops on civil disobedience, storytelling and media outreach.

Students who have attended the workshops even continue to use the well-known farm workers’ rallying clap at the end of organizing meetings.

“They know that clap,” Ganz said, “because I taught them that clap. It’s all about the experience.”

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