Text Message, MySpace Roots of Student Protests

Thousands of students walked out of classrooms across the nation on Tuesday to protest proposed changes to immigration law seen by many as a crackdown on illegal immigrants. In California's Central Valley, protests are coordinated among remote agricultural towns by text messaging and MySpace chat rooms. Sasha Khokha of member station KQED examines the grass-roots protest organization and what the students are protesting against.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, from NPR News. And we continue with our coverage of immigration. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. At a DAY TO DAY editorial meeting this week, a parent noted it's not that hard to get students to skip school, but to walk out as a political statement, that is something. On the immigration legislation the Senate's debating, kids are doing it in Texas and Nevada. In California, 40,000 high school students so far this week.

BRAND: In the rural Central Valley, demonstrations were led by the children of farm workers. These students say they'd be directly affected by what comes out of Washington. Sasha Khokha, of member station KQED, reports.

SASHA KHOKHA reporting:

When 16-year-old Joanna Perez(ph) turned on her television to see protestors flooding downtown Los Angeles last weekend, she wondered why other kids from immigrant families in California's Central Valley weren't out marching. Perez was born in the U.S., but her mother is still applying for her green card. They picked grapes in the fields together until Perez was seven years old.

Ms. JOANNA PEREZ (Protestor): We've never seen an American white person in the fields working, and we're like, well, who's going to put the vegetables or who's going to put the fruits in the markets? Who's going to do all of that? You know, I mean, the farmers that have been working in the fields for so long, and they've been breaking their backs to actually do something for this country, and out of nowhere, they just, you know, say we're going to take you guys out. We don't think it was fair.

(Soundbite of beeping sound)

Ms. KHOKHA: This week, Perez and her friends use their cell phones to send text messages urging a walk-out, a tactic student leaders also used in Los Angeles. Then Perez logged onto the popular on-line message board, MySpace.com, and reached students at rural high schools throughout California's Central Valley.

Ms. PEREZ: I started getting calls, 'cause I put my phone number on there, and they started calling me and I started explaining what we were going to do. In the beginning, we only had eight people, 'cause, you know, we were at my house, and we were like, okay, this is not going to work out, but as soon as we walked over here to the corner, we saw everybody come out.

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

Ms. KHOKHA: Nearly a thousand students gathered Monday and Tuesday in downtown Fresno. Word spread quickly on MySpace.com, and hundreds more students walked out of school in tiny farm towns around the valley. Many of them, like high school senior Lydia Ramirez(ph), are the children of farm workers.

Ms. LYDIA RAMIREZ (Protestor): We just want Bush to know that every place he goes into, who builds it for him. I mean, he goes into a place, into any building, and it's basically Mexican immigrants who are building things around him where he goes to visit and eat and everything he does.

Ms. KHOKHA: Administrators say some of the protestors were just looking for an excuse to get out of class.

Ms. MARIA ROMERO(ph) (Principal, Roosevelt High School, Fresno, California): Go into class. You guys go to class.

Unidentified Woman: Excuse me, (unintelligible). I have a (unintelligible) student.

Ms. KHOKHA: Maria Romero is conflicted about this week's protest. She's a principal at Fresno's Roosevelt High School, where two-thirds of the students are English language learners. Romero once worked in the fields herself and marched with Cesar Chavez, but walk-outs, she says, might hurt the school district. Fresno Unified School District loses $30 a day in state revenue for each absent student.

Ms. ROMERO: This school district has no say in what's going on, you know, at the Senate, at the, in the judiciary. We're hoping that we can work with students, so there's different things that we can do to give them voice. Now we're kind of in a reactionary mode instead of being proactive.

Ms. KHOKHA: School administrators say the immigration debate is an opportunity to teach about the political process in government and civics classes. In Fresno, administrators appeal to students over school PA systems, urging them to write letters to Congress rather than walk off campus.

Unidentified Speaker: You can go in to register to vote. Also, we have the addresses to all the representatives, so you can write a letter to your representative to voice your concerns, in the library, during lunch. Thank you.

Ms. KHOKHA: But in Fresno's Roosevelt High School library, only half a dozen students sat down to write letters Tuesday. Hundreds more skipped school to protest. They say it's more empowering than penning a message that could just get stacked up in an office somewhere. For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha in Fresno.

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