Students Abandon School for Immigration Protests

Thousands of Latino students continue to stage walkouts across Los Angeles to protest the proposed toughening of immigration laws. Local authorities and school officials are working to keep the students in class.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to the protest against proposed legislation cracking down on illegal immigrants.

Students across the country have been staging walkouts. Here in Los Angeles yesterday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the city's police urged students to find other ways to voice their opposition, and police began cracking down on truants, issuing citations and warning students to stay in school.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

Police estimate more than 11,000 middle and high school students from around L.A. again walked out of their classrooms and into the streets in protest. Some marched as far as ten miles in the rain to rally downtown, outside of City Hall. Among them, Alva Martinez, from Wilson High School in East L.A. She says she's alarmed over proposed immigration laws.

Ms. ALVA MARTINEZ (High School Student, Los Angeles): I mean, they're going to deport our parents, our friends, or whoever are here, like from Mexico, and not immigrants. They call us illegal. They call us criminals, right? So, we bust our asses out in the fields just so that this country could be rich? Is it a crime?

CROWD: No!

Ms. MARTINEZ: No!

DEL BARCO: The school walkouts began Friday, with many students saying they want to protect their undocumented parents and relatives and themselves. Many of them also participated in Saturday's pro-immigrant march in L.A. Police estimated that crowd at half a million people.

Seventeen year old Maria Samora(ph) says she walked out of her classroom because she's afraid of proposals that would deport her or separate her from her family.

Ms. MARIA SAMORA (High School Student, Los Angeles): My mother did not come to this country to be thrown out. And she wanted a better life for me, so I'm here to stay. I was supposed to go to the march on Saturday, but my mom didn't let me. But today she said if I come I'm grounded, and I…

DEL BARCO: But school officials and police vow to do more than that to student protestors who cut class, announcing they'd more aggressively enforce truancy laws and issue citations with fines of up to $200 dollars or 20 days of community service.

Police Chief Bill Bratton says officers will continue to cite students who march on overpasses and stop traffic.

Chief BILL BRATTON (Chief of Police, Los Angeles): They need to be in school. They need to be learning. They need to be engaged in dialogue in school, not on the streets, and certainly not on the freeways.

DEL BARCO: Ironically, some of the strongest warnings for students to stay in school came from L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

In 1968, he helped lead a Chicano student walkout of his school, to protest the injustices at the public high school system in East L.A. Villaraigosa says he passed on some lessons when he met privately with a few student protestors this week.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Mayor, Los Angeles): I'll tell you what I told them. I had consequences for that action. And, in fact, in 1969, one of the reasons why I didn't grad…well, I got kicked out of that school, was because I did participate in those walkouts.

And yes, people in this country have a right to protest. We understand that. But when kids are walking on freeways, they can be a danger to themselves and to others.

DEL BARCO: The 1968 student walkouts were featured this week on an HBO movie that many of the students say inspired them. A key character portrayed in the movie was Sal Castro, who was a high school teacher in East L.A.

Castro was back this week to support the students, telling them their protest helped influence the immigration debate.

Mr. SAL CASTRO (Schoolteacher): In Washington, D.C., you have made the U.S. Senate back down.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

DEL BARCO: But with more immigration reform proposals still in the works, students say they'll be back on the streets to demonstrate, despite warnings from the authorities.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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