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Students Galvanize for Immigrant Rights

By Ryan Knudson and Al Levie

Students United for Immigrant Rights evolved out of a lesson that Al presented to students in his Latino-American History class. The class initially attracted mainly second- and third-generation Chicano students, along with a handful of immigrant students. Students viewed the PBS video series Matters of Race (available at www.pbs.org/mattersof-race/). One segment was about a dramatic increase in numbers of Mexican immigrant workers moving to a small town in the southern United States. The students were appalled at the depictions of open racism on the part of white townspeople in the film. This led to a class discussion on the struggles that immigrants face both in the South and around Racine. At the students' urging, Al took a personal day the very next day to participate in a rally with several students. At the rally, Al met people from Voces de la Frontera (Voices of the Border), an immigrant workers' group from Milwaukee; this connection would prove mutually beneficial.

The event drew coverage in the Racine Journal-Times, which printed anti-immigrant letters. Richard Peterson's letter read, "Hello, what don't you understand? You are here illegally, why should you get any justice?" This letter set up a classroom discussion/response activity where students wrote individual and group rebuttals. The Journal-Times printed all of the students' letters on its op-ed page. (Excerpts, pages 49, 51, and 53.) Readers took the students' letters seriously, and weighed in both positively and negatively in response. In effect, Latino-American History students became the catalyst for a community debate on immigrant rights that was carried out on the op-ed page of the Journal-Times.

Soon thereafter, Christine Neu-mann-Ortiz, the director of Voces de la Frontera, contacted Al to tell him that state Rep. Pedro Colón of Milwaukee had introduced a bill in the Wisconsin Assembly that would allow undocumented immigrant students to attend state institutions of higher education at resident tuition rates. Al invited two representatives of Voces de la Frontera to speak to the Latino-American History class about the issue and the legislation. Ryan brought his English as a Second Language (ESL) students to the talk, and again, students wanted to take action. They arranged a field trip to Madison for a legislative committee hearing on the bill (AB 95). Students prepared testimony to deliver on behalf of undocumented immigrant students.

At the hearing, an undocumented immigrant student named Marylu Garcia made a strong argument in favor of the bill. "Some people say that immigrants should not receive any governmental help because they don't pay their taxes, and that they are taking away from the United States illegally," she said. "The reality is that immigrants do pay their taxes. But they are not able to collect them. So how can they be stealing money, when they are actually giving it away? Immigrants take the worst, low-paying jobs that no citizens want. And you call that fair? When immigrants are actually being exploited?" As the local press picked up on the issue, the students became known as strong proponents of the bill, which never made it out of committee.

Shortly thereafter, with financial assistance from Voces de la Frontera, Al, his wife Jennifer, Voces de la Frontera leader and longstanding community activist Maria Morales, and seven of the most active students traveled to Washington, D.C. The Center for Community Change organizedthree days ofactivities centering on the DREAM Act and Student Adjustment Act. These federal acts would offer undocumented students a pathway to citizenship, in-state tuition for college, and opportunities to apply for federal financial aid. Students trained in lobbying techniques and spent a daylobbying elected representatives.

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