Up to 1,600 students from Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax skipped school last Thursday and marched across the county in a protest against restrictive immigration legislation being debated in Congress.
A week of student demonstrations culminated in a massive show of solidarity with Arlington’s immigrant community, as the teenagers walked from Ballston to Courthouse waving flags from Central and South American countries and chanting "we are not criminals," and "equal rights."
SIMILAR PROTESTS were held by students around the country last week, as the Senate discussed whether to enact a guest-worker program that provides a clear path toward citizenship or pass a bill clamping down on the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
The dispute over the immigration bills has dominated the political discourse in Washington for the past month, split the Republican Party and helped galvanize the Latino community.
Hundreds of students from Yorktown, Washington-Lee and Wakefield met at their respective schools, left before classes began and walked to Wellburn Square in the heart of Ballston. There they held a boisterous rally in front of dozens of on-looking police officers and befuddled workers, who left their offices to see what the commotion was about.
The demonstrators then made a slow and boisterous march down Fairfax Drive and Clarendon Boulevard to Courthouse, where they held a rally in front of the county government’s offices.
"We are here to let everybody know that immigrants are working their butts off and doing the dirty work for the rest of Americans," said Rose Villanueva, a Yorktown senior whose parents are from Peru and El Salvador. "They are working hard for a better life."
While there was a smattering of black, white and Asian students at the rally, the vast majority were of Latino origin. The demonstrations were peaceful, and police department spokesman Matt Martin said there were no incidents or arrests.
Arlington County Public Schools also dispatched nine buses to bring the students back to their high schools after the demonstration concluded.
THE STUDENTS took to the streets in part because they fear that some of their classmates may be forced to return to their home countries if a more hard-line immigration bill is passed, Villanueva said.
Andres Tobar, a leading Arlington Latino activist, said that many students in Virginia are in the process of becoming citizens, which can take upwards of a decade, and are fearful of what this law portends for them.
"The students are looking for an opportunity to vent their frustrations about the future," said Tobar, who did not attend the demonstrations. "Some of these young people are in limbo."
During the rally students contended that immigrants comprise the backbone of the local economy and take the difficult, low-paying jobs that native-born Americans are reluctant to perform.
"The U.S.A wouldn’t be the U.S.A without us," said Bolivian-born Emily Zeballos, a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. "Who else would mow the lawns and build the buildings?"
Zeballos said she and her friends were also marching to send a message to family and friends in Latin America that those who have come to America have not forgotten them.
County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman made a short, extemporaneous speech to the students on the steps of Courthouse Plaza.
"It’s great to see that in Arlington in 2006, the first amendment is alive and well," Zimmerman told the cheering crowd through a megaphone. "It’s great to see a new generation exercise its right to assemble, its right to free speech and right to tell the government what you think."
IN DECEMBER the House passed a bill that would tighten security along the border with Mexico, require businesses to prove the legality of their employees and would prohibit churches and nonprofit organizations from providing aid to undocumented workers.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, agreed to a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for a three-year work visa, which could be renewed, after paying taxes and a fine. It would also provide an additional 400,000 visas each year for those seeking to enter the country.
During the rally students held signs condemning the House bill and the restrictions it would place on businesses and religious entities.
"It’s important not to allow the government to storm churches, take immigrants and put nonprofit organizations in jail for [providing] humanitarian aid," said Hady De La Via, a Yorktown student.
To ensure the safety of students and Arlington residents, nine school buses were sent to Courthouse Plaza to transport the students back to the three high schools after the rally ended at 1 p.m.
Students were allowed to leave their schools, but were told they would receive an "unexcused absence" if they did.
"Demonstrations regarding civic issues represent a long-standing tradition in our democratic society," Superintendent Robert Smith said in a statement. "We have indicated, as well, that choosing to participate in ways that violate school attendance laws and rules involves accepting the consequences of such violations."
Besides receiving an unexcused absence, students will not be further penalized for participating in the protests, said Washington-Lee Assistant Principal Colin Brown.
"We support students exercising their first-amendment rights and being active in the community in an appropriate fashion," Brown said.