Student Immigrants Use Civil Rights-Era Strategies

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Associated Press

Student Immigrants Use Civil Rights-Era Strategies

by
Russell Contreras

Immigrant youth activists announced a hunger strike this morning outside of Sen. Schumer's New York City office to push for the DREAM Act. (PHOTO: JAISAL NOOR)

BOSTON — 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."

For two years,
Renata Teodoro lived in fear of being deported to her native Brazil,
like her mother, brother and sister. She reserved her social contact for
close friends, was extra careful about signing her name anywhere, and
fretted whenever anyone asked about her immigration status, because she
been living illegally in the United States since she was 6.

Yet on
a recent afternoon, Teodoro gathered with other illegal immigrants
outside the Massachusetts Statehouse with signs, fliers and a bullhorn —
then marched the streets of Boston, putting herself in danger of arrest
by going public but hoping her new openness would prompt action on the
DREAM Act, a federal bill to allow people like her a pathway to
citizenship via college enrollment or military service.

"I don't
care. I can't live like this anymore," said Teodoro, 22, a leader of the
Student Immigration Movement and a part-time student at UMass-Boston.
"I'm not afraid, and I have to take a stand."

The shift has been
building, said Tom Shields, a doctoral student at Brandeis University in
Waltham who is studying the new student movement.

"In recent
months, there has been an interest in connecting the narrative of their
struggle to the civil rights effort for education," Shields said.

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.

By attaching themselves to
the civil rights movement, Shabazz said, the immigrant students can
claim the moral high ground and underdog status of the debate.

"The
question now is ... can they convince moderate, middle-of-the-road,
independent voters to support them?" he said.

The Rev. William
Lawson, an 81-year-old civil rights leader and retired pastor of Wheeler
Avenue Baptist Church in Houston, called the student activists' tactics
courageous and said he'd like to meet them. But Lawson, who marched
with Martin Luther King Jr., cautioned student immigrant activists to
prepare for peers getting arrested, deported or possibly killed.

"You
do have to expect consequences. Many civil rights activists faced
injury, sometimes death," said Lawson. "And I'm not sure how many of
these (students) understand the fundamental philosophy of nonviolence."

Students
have to keep in mind the audience they're trying to win over, said
Lonnie King, 73, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee, the group responsible for sit-ins at segregated restaurants
across the South in the 1960s.

"They need to understand that the
bulk of folks are in the middle," King said. "They have to coach their
message to make it broadly appealing."

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."

Teodoro said the training changed her life and showed
her the cause was larger than herself.

During the rally last week
in Boston, she led a march from the Massachusetts Statehouse to Sen.
Scott Brown's office at the John F. Kennedy federal building, which also
houses U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices. Along with
Carlos Savio Oliveira, 22, of Falmouth, Mass., another illegal
immigrant, the pair walked into the federal building to hand Brown's
staff 1,500 letters of support for the DREAM Act.

Outside
supporters wore T-shirts with the words "Brown is beautiful" — a pun
referring to the Chicano movement chant and Brown's well-publicized nude
photo spread in Cosmopolitan magazine as a college student.

Brown,
whose office was previously the site of a sit-in by the same group, has
not said whether he supports the bill.

In September, Teodoro and a
dozen other students also took a weeklong trip from Boston to the
South, with Shields driving.

Along the way, they met with black
former students who desegregated Clinton High School in Tennessee and
Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. They visited civil rights
museums and filmed the journey for a planned documentary. But the
highlight was meeting Carlotta Walls LaNier, a member of the Little Rock
Nine.

Teodoro cornered LaNier at a book signing of her memoir, "A
Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High
School."

"I went up to her at the signing and told her my story
and tried not to cry," Teodoro said. "She listened. Then, she hugged
me."

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