Thursday, April 22, 2010

Arizona immigration bill: H.S. students leave school to join Capitol protest

Crowds began to dwindle at the Capitol Thursday evening after upwards of 2,000 students from high schools across Phoenix walked out of school to protest with other activists, all urging Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the immigration bill.

Protesters swelled in front of the Capitol as people converged to rally against Senate Bill 1070 during the day. Some came from as far away as California.

The size of the crowd grew over the course of the afternoon, and estimates by Phoenix police and media varied between 1,500 and about 2,000. By about 5 p.m., most of the crowd had dispersed, but a new wave of about 50 to 100 protesters arrived from Carl Hayden Community High School.

During the day, some of the protesters marched around the building, chanting, "Si se puede," or "We can do it." They were joined by 56 members of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, who arrived by bus.

The gathering was at times boisterous and for the most part civil. One of about a dozen counterprotesters got into a minor scuffle with the crowd.

More than a dozen media outlets covered the event, including CNN and a TV station from Southern California, and the estimated 20 news vans and trucks parked along a cordoned-off area of 17th Avenue.

"We're U.S. citizens; we were born here," said Jessica Perez, a Tolleson High School student. "It's not right that they separate us from our parents."

Many students heard about the protest by word of mouth.

"I was about to go to my next class, and everyone started going out," said Junior Reyes, a Metro Tech High School student. "So we got together and came."

The students said their voices need to be heard, even if they aren't old enough to vote. They said their goal was to protect their family and friends from possible racial profiling.

The Reform Immigration for America campaign leaders have been outside the Capitol since Monday morning. They've slept outdoors and spent hours praying.

"We feel that we're definitely here for the community," said Alicia Contreras, a volunteer leader for the group. "We're meeting here in prayer and peaceful action."

Though the group was organized, Contreras says people have been coming just by word of mouth. "We've been talking to individuals, and if you tell one person, they tell 10. This is their way of showing what they feel. The reason the students are here is they will inherit the future that comes with this bill."

One teen arrived wearing a sombrero and carrying a Mexican flag. A crowd of 15 to 20 people, led by Alfredo Aparicio, approached him and persuaded the youth to put away the items.

Said Aparicio, "We're all here for the American dream. That's what we're following. They should be wearing the American flag."

Students came from Tolleson High School, Phoenix Trevor Browne High School, Cesar Chavez High School, Carl Hayden High School, Metro Tech High School, North High School and possibly more.

Most of the students were in the Phoenix Union High School District. District officials said they did not encourage the walkout.

"Walking away from the very institute that accepts all students regardless of race or national origin is not wise," said Craig Pletenik, the community relations manager. "It is this type of behavior that sends a negative message."

Apparently, the faculty had received word about the march through text messages and Facebook.

"We have informed the students and their parents that there will be consequences," Pletenik said. "Phoenix Union High School District does not condone this.

"It's personal and emotional for a lot of our kids. But it's sometimes it also becomes an excuse to ditch school," Pletenik said.

About 260 students from Tolleson Union High School District participated in the walk-out, which is about 3 percent of the district's student, district spokesperson Karyn Morse Eubanks said.

"The students, they get wrapped up in a cause and the emotions are high," she said. "We don't want to discourage students from experiencing those types of emotions and participating in the government process but you know it's not a school issues and they shouldn't make it one."

Eubanks said some campuses had no students leave school and most of the participating students were from Tolleson Union High School, the district's oldest campus.

At mid-afternoon, members of the LA-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights arrived by bus. They said they came to lend solidarity to what they see as a human-rights fight.

"It's beyond an immigration issue. It's beyond a color issue. It's a human issue for us," Jhon Tesoro, 25, Hollywood. "We would do it for any group of people under attack."

Tesoro said the group plans to leave for California around midnight.

Republic reporters Sadie Jo Smokey, Emily Gersema, Mary Beth Faller, Jeffrey Javier, Megan Gordon, Kerry Fehr Snyder, Ofelia Madrid and staff assistant Taulleto Rodriguez contributed to the report.

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