Walkout: Nationwide, thousands of high school students rally for immigrant rights

NEWBURGH, N.Y. — Students in this small city walked out of class at exactly noon, March 31, to demand immigrant rights, joining a wave of thousands of students doing the same thing in Los Angeles, San Diego, El Paso, Yakima, Wash., and scores of other cities across the nation.

Over 100 students walked out of this city’s one high school, Newburgh Free Academy, at the end of their sixth period, organizers said. “We stayed in school until most of our classes were done, and then we just got out,” Jose Tobon, the main organizer, told the World. “We stayed in school because we didn’t want people to think we were getting out just for the hell of it, or to get a day off.”

After leaving the school, the students assembled at a nearby church, then marched through the city carrying signs opposing the punitive anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner bill and demanding immigrant rights.

Rosa Matias, a 16-year-old sophomore who participated in the walkout, said Newburgh students were inspired “after watching all the other student walkouts across the country, especially Los Angeles,” where some 40,000 students have walked out of schools over the past week.

Matias added, “It wasn’t all immigrants. While she herself was born in the U.S., she said, “My mom’s from Mexico and my dad’s from Puerto Rico. We’re all citizens. Everyone came over here as an immigrant. The only people who deserve to say ‘go back to your country’ are the Native Americans.” She added, “We just don’t want things to get worse for immigrants.”

“I think it was a fine way of expressing themselves,” said Angela, an African American parent of a student who did not participate in the walkout. “I do support what they stand for, and I am a citizen, born here.”

Some Southern California schools tried to interfere with the walkouts, chaining their doors and issuing truancy notices. The Newburgh students faced a better situation, as many teachers, faculty and parents, both immigrant and native-born, were sympathetic.

“I didn’t want to tell anybody from the school, because some of them might not have agreed with it. But when I came back to school everybody really supported me,” Tobon said. “Most of my teachers are white, and they were cool with it.”

Peter Copeletti, NFA’s principal, said, “We did not take any disciplinary action against them.” He added that classes missed would be counted as skipped, but the students would not be given detentions. “It will just go towards their cumulative attendance rate.”

The NFA students’ exuberance contrasted starkly with a pall of fear that seemed to surround some older immigrant residents. Several Middle Eastern storeowners became nervous when conversation turned toward immigration and refused to answer questions. One said he had been advised by his brother not to talk to anyone without a lawyer present.

There was support in the community, though. “It’s kind of crazy if you think about it,” said Damon Johnson, an African American resident. “There’s no way to take all of those people and just displace them. What are we going to do, put everybody out?”

The sentiment was echoed by another resident, Jim Mennillo. “They should have a path to citizenship, since they’ve been working here for years as law-abiding citizens,” he said. But he added, “They want to come. Just do it legally.”

Tobon said he appreciated that virtually no one in the school or among those he had spoken to harbored ill-will towards the immigrant population, but he was disturbed when people said the solution was for immigrants to simply come legally. “They think it’s that simple,” he said. “You just walk down the street and get citizenship like if it was that easy, like going to the store. It’s a very long, tough, maybe impossible process.”

Newburgh was a small piece of a nationwide wave of high school walkouts, sparked when 30,000 walked out March 23 in Los Angeles. The movement spread across southern California, then to places like Las Vegas, where some 4,000 students walked out last week, and Tucson, Houston and Dallas, where 16-year-old Gustavo Jimenez helped lead thousands of students in united protests. The walkout wave reached the East Coast, including J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County, Va., where dozens of students walked out, joining with hundreds from neighboring schools.

The walkouts show no signs of abating. A quick search on MySpace.com, a web site popular among young people, reveals dozens more planned actions.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans maneuvered to try to weaken a measure passed by the Judiciary Committee that provides a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrant workers. As senators prepared to head home for a two-week recess, immigrant rights organizations, joined by labor and religious and other groups, were readying an April 10 National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice with big demonstrations in major cities across the nation.

In the House, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) has introduced a measure, HR 5035, that would allow judges to intervene in cases where U.S. citizen children would be harmed by deportations of undocumented parents.

Jim Lane and Emile Schepers contributed to this story.