Students at Freedom High School followed the example of weekend demonstrators in Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Phoenix when they walked out of school at 8:30 a.m. Monday to protest HR 4437.
The bill that passed the House of Representatives in December and was to be debated Monday in the U.S. Senate would make it a felony to be an illegal immigrant in the United States. The bill would also make it a crime to help illegal immigrants.
Many of the roughly 160 students protesting in front of the high school on Neabsco Mills Road carried flags from Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador and Puerto Rico and said they had family members who could be deported as felons if the law passed.
“The laws they’re going to make in Washington are going to make it illegal to be an immigrant,” said Freedom student Anthony Lemus.
“My brother, my cousin, my mom, uncle, everybody could get deported. Everybody’s been working here since before I was born,” said Lemus, 16.
Karla Birzuela, whose family comes from El Salvador, joined the demonstration.
“We’re not doing it because we don’t want to be in school,” the 18-year-old Freedom High School student said of the demonstration.
“We’re doing it because we have to. It’s our family,” she said as students cheered when car horns honked in support.
Louis Vasquez said he didn’t want to see any one in his family in trouble with the law either.
“We don’t appreciate our family members — that we truly care about — seeing them getting deported,” the 15-year-old Vasquez said.
The students were simply trying to be heard, said Vasquez, whose family is from El Salvador.
“We’re just tying to get across that we see [HR 4437] as unfair,” Vasquez said.
“Hard-working men and women shouldn’t have to suffer,” Vasquez said.
School officials said the students faced disciplinary actions for cutting class, but wouldn’t be punished for demonstrating.
“There will be no special discipline steps taken against students for participating in this protest,” said Phil Kavitz, Prince William County Public Schools director of communications.
Freedom High School principal Dot McCabe said the students were so “orderly” and “respectful” that they asked for garbage bags for their trash at the end of the demonstration.
“It was incredible. They listened to everything we asked them to do,” McCabe said. “I was very proud of them.”
McCabe said she supported the students exercising their right to free speech.
“They demonstrated because they were concerned about the immigration measure,” McCabe said.
Students from other schools joined the demonstration at Freedom High School where the protesters carried signs that said “We want our rights.”
Giovanni Hernandez came from Gar-Field Senior High School to participate in the protest.
He said his family, like other immigrants, are helping to build America.
“They provide hard work for the United States,” said the 17-year-old Hernandez whose family comes from Puerto Rico.
“Half of the houses built out there were built by Latinos like us,” Hernandez said.
Birzuela said immigrants will do work Americans won’t do.
“Who’s going to clean their toilets?” she asked.
“Without us, what are they going to do?” he asked.
Jakline Merino said HR 4437 is unjust and would make people afraid to go to church or to the hospital, so that’s why she protested.
“This new law is not right and that’s why we’re here doing this,” the 16-year-old Gar-Field student said.
Raquel Parada of Gar-Field Senior High School came to the protest simply to stand up.
“I’m here for my rights, for my family, for my friends,”said the16-year-old Parada, whose family is from Guatemala.
Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., have written an alternate bill that would strengthen border patrols and allow guest workers into the U.S. The Kennedy-McCain bill would also allow illegal immigrants the chance to earn citizenship.
Nancy Frank, whose daughter attends Freedom High School, said was happy to see the students protesting.
She agreed with them.
“I pray that the Senate is able to see that there’s going to be a huge impact to our economy and to the way that we function. The Hispanics are here and they’re working and they’re supporting businesses,” Frank said.
Both of Virginia’s Republican senators support strengthening border security, and also favor some measure of guest worker programs.
Sen. John Warner has favored guest worker programs in the past including H-2A and H-2B visa programs, for agricultural and non-agricultural workers, respectively.
Sen. George Allen has also supported H-2B in the past and a spokesperson said he is a “strong supporter of increasing the caps on the maximum number of guest workers admitted to the U.S.”
The present cap is 66,000 guest workers for the H-2B program, which is seasonal. Visas last for up to one year.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation Monday afternoon that would clear the way for millions of undocumented workers to seek U.S. citizenship without first leaving the country, the Associated Press reported.
The committee also voted to take out proposed criminal penalties for people who are in the United States illegally, according to the Associated Press.
The panel’s vote cleared the way for the full Senate to begin debate today on the immigration issue, the Associated Press reported.
President Bush has said he too supports a guest worker program.
Lemus said he thought HR 4437 would open the way to racial profiling.
“I’m racially profiled everywhere I go,” Lemus said.”This law just gives them more reason.”
In a Prince William County Public Schools press release, McCabe said the School Board “hoped that concerned students across the school division will now feel comfortable that their message has been heard and that there is no further need to interrupt our educational routine.”
Manassas Park High School principal Bruce McDade said about 15 to 20 students didn’t show up for school Friday.
“We did have a group of kids with Hispanic surnames who did not come to school because they were protesting the pending legislation,” McDade said.
The students ended their protest at Freedom High School about 1:30 p.m. and marched to ToTo’s Market on U.S. 1 where they finished for the day about 3:30 p.m.