For first generation immigrants, especially those in the country illegally, raising your voice could mean losing your job or being deported. For their children, born and raised in the United States, raising their voices to assert their identity was often less a matter of survival than of popularity. Teenagers’ desire to fit in transcends borders and languages. But with Congress in the throes of an ideological struggle over the future of immigrants in America, the restraints, whatever they were, have been lifted. And members of every generation, in every part of the country, have united to be heard, whether by marching among tens of thousands of people in city centers or by holding signs among tens of people on street corners.
But what message is being sent, and who is listening? These issues were at the fore at West Potomac High School on April 5, the day students planned a walk-out to protest on Route 1. Although she respected the students’ desire for civic participation, Nancy Kreloff, an assistant principal at West Potomac, questioned whether missing a day of classes and addressing passers-by on the Route 1 corridor was the most effective way for the students to channel their enthusiasm. Kreloff tried to turn the protest into a "teachable moment" by holding an after-school forum for the students. Despite the announcement of this school-sanctioned opportunity, about 50 students walked out of school at 9 a.m.
Robert Castro was among them. He said the protesting students carried signs and gathered on Route 1. "A lot of people would stop and honk and give us thumbs up," Castro said "we had a lot of people flick us off too." He said the students also stopped at Hayfield and Edison High Schools. "Walking out, we’re actually expressing our voice to the public."
But other students questioned whether the walk-out was the best form of self-expression. "The mentality’s not where you want to be… a lot of kids don’t know what they’re talking about, on both sides," said Evan Dobbs, a first generation American, whose mother emigrated illegally from Mexico with her family and is now a naturalized citizen. Dobbs listed similar protests all over the country. "I guess it was our school’s turn to have our walk-out." He mentioned violent incidents that occurred at similar events at other area schools, such as the student in Franconia who was stabbed two weeks ago.
"I did not feel as if walking out would prove the better point… We need to speak out and tell people why we’re walking instead of just walking out... I feel more can get accomplished actually speaking to the other side."
ARTHUR CLAY’S mother emigrated illegally from El Salvador when she was 18. Her family was fleeing a civil war. "They worked their butts off" when they got to America, Clay said. He discussed how bills that would deport undocumented immigrants could affect families like his own. "I’m a citizen. I’m lucky my Mom is a citizen… What would I do if they kicked her out?.. El Salvador is my heritage, but not my country."
Many of the students at the forum had not participated in the walk-out. Castro, who walked out and returned for the forum, said that many students were suspicious of the school’s motivations. "We felt as if they were trying to put us down, calm us down, quiet us down," he explained. Jocelyn Garay, who also walked out and returned, said "I think [the school’s] intentions were good." But she thinks the school would have had more participation if they had clarified the goal of the meeting. Still, she felt more of the protesting students should have taken the opportunity given to them by the school. "It’s really disappointing and upsetting. There should have been people here."
But students continued to trickle in, and eventually about 30 were gathered in the auditorium.
"I want to congratulate you because you are being part of the democratic process," said Kreloff, who had photocopied information on how to contact Senators George Allen and John Warner, and U.S. Rep. James Moran (D-8). Haroldo Suarez, one of the school’s parent liaisons who helps the school reach out to the community, translated for Kreloff and other speakers. About 100 of the 2,000 students at Mount Vernon need translators because they do not speak English.
Suarez also expressed his own opinion on the immigration bills being debated. "A law should solve a problem not make another one," Suarez said. "The way I see the law, as proposed, it would punish a priest, a doctor, a preacher for helping someone else who happens to be illegal… this is the opportunity for you to be a part of history. For you should be the future of the conscience of this country." But, "By leaving the school… you were violating a law." Demonstrations draw resources from police and cause public disruptions, "forcing school administrators to take an issue with you." He urged students to be "constructive: you are voicing a civilized opinion."
Garay took the opportunity to speak to her classmates. "There is a negative connotation with Latinos. That is our generation’s fault. You can’t complain about it if you aren’t doing anything to change it." She said students must speak-out, and walk-out, for the right reasons, "It was made clear at the demonstration this morning, ‘If you’re here to skip school we don’t want you here. You’re not welcome here."
"I feel that I’m here to make a difference," she said.