Surge in Latino Activism

Movement against immigration restrictions spreads from high schools to colleges.
April 10, 2006

Just a stone’s throw from the populous city of Juarez, Mexico, the University of Texas at El Paso is home to thousands of Hispanic students -- many of whom are first-generation Americans and are the first in their families to attend college.

Nearly three out of four students at UTEP are Hispanic, and it’s common for some to commute across the border. So it’s no surprise that immigration is a regular topic of discussion.

This spring, with the U.S. Congress batting around immigration reform -- including proposals that many Latinos view as bigoted -- and with throngs of protesters reacting to lawmakers’ proposals with their feet, the issue has new legs at UTEP. Hundreds of students attended an annual Cesar Chavez march in downtown El Paso last month, only days after a major march for immigrants’ rights in Los Angeles. A United Farm Workers co-founder has spoken to a packed auditorium on campus. And last week, students in one UTEP class staged an impromptu walkout to the chants of “ Si se puede” (Yes we can).

“Being raised on the border, those issues are always important to me,” said Lizeph Galvez, co-chair of student group Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA.) “Whatever happens in Washington reflects back on us. What I’m seeing, it’s not just about one group of people. It’s about students rising up and standing up for what they believe.”

While high school students who have skipped class as a show of solidarity for immigrants’ rights have dominated the headlines, college students across the country have also entered into the movement, and many plan to take part in events today, which is a national day of action on immigrants’ rights. “This seems to be the day when many of the campuses and organizations are showing their support for students and those who will be affected by the legislation,” said Sarita Brown, president of Excelencia in Education, which promotes Latino student success in higher education.

Protesters are responding to an immigration bill passed in December by the House of Representatives that would tighten border security and make it illegal for companies to hire undocumented workers. The Senate has mulled different options, and has yet to find an approach with enough support to pass.

Much of the most visible activity has been in the Southwest, but campus activism on the issue of immigration is on the rise nationwide. At the State University of New York at Stony Brook, about 200 students walked out of classes earlier this month for a protest at which they were joined by students from other campuses in the area.

The presidents of seven Roman Catholic colleges  in Illinois -- Benedictine, DePaul, Dominican, Lewis, and Saint Xavier Universities; Loyola University Chicago, and the University of St. Francis -- last week issued a joint statement asking Congress to develop legislation that provides a “reasonable opportunity of citizenship” and “creates legal avenues for migrant workers and their families to enter the United States and work with their rights protected.”

Timothy McGettigan, associate professor of sociology at Colorado State University at Pueblo, has pushed the university to sponsor seminars that deal with immigration issues. McGettigan, who chairs the Faculty Senate,  spoke at a student-organized rally last week that called for immigration legislation that gives workers a “fair shot” at American citizenship.

Sudarshan Kapoor, a professor who leads the peace studies program at California State University at Fresno, addressed students at a rally last week, telling them he is worried by what he sees as a growing anti-immigration sentiment. “It’s encouraging to see that students understand the gravity of the issues that are facing the country,” Kapoor said.

Moises Gil, who is president of a Hispanic student group called La Mision, at the Community College of Denver, said the immigration debate has given him a new appreciation for his heritage. Gil was born in Mexico and through La Mision, he helps Hispanic freshmen stay in college by purchasing textbooks for them and holding fund raisers in their honor.

Kapoor said students who attend colleges located in agricultural areas are likely to see heightened student and faculty activism given the presence of many farm workers. For example, nine student groups at California State University at Stanislaus have planned an open forum today in the main quad that focuses on immigration issues.

In some cases, student groups have formed around the topic of immigration. At the University of Texas at San Antonio, a group of female students started Siempre United, a group that is planning to hold discussions on the economic and political implications of America’s immigration policy.  Siempre United, which formed in the days after the Los Angeles march, is already recognized by the university.

Brown, Excelencia’s president, said she is seeing an unprecedented “level of empathy among students” toward immigrants, in part because a growing number of the students are from immigrant families or know someone who would be affected by the new legislation.

On some campuses with high rates of Hispanic enrollment, student and faculty activism is not evident -- at least on campus. Daniel Loera, multicultural affairs director in the division of student affairs at University of La Verne, in Southern California, said there “hasn’t been as much activity as I’d like to see” at the college. That is, in part, because many students chose to go off campus to the Los Angeles march. “I’ve had students come back to me and say that was the most powerful experience they’ve had,” he said.

Dennis Bixler-Marquez, the MEChA faculty advisor at UTEP, said he doesn’t expect student activism to wane any time soon. “We could see this building up,” Bixler-Marquez said. “We’ve had substantial faculty and student participation. This is the most involvement that I’ve seen in quite some time from the university.”

Antonio Gonzalez, an associate professor of education at UTEP who is on the executive council of the Faculty Senate, said this is a unique opportunity for professors at the university. “It’s what we in education call a teachable moment,” Gonzalez said. “I say shame on any teacher who doesn’t use this time to open up their classroom for discussion.”

Sophia Alonso, vice president of El Paso's University Democrats, said students have been more than willing to join the movement. “Everyone is acting on the momentum,” she said. “This is the first time it is easy to get students united.”


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