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Student Immigrants Use Civil Rights-era Strategies

BOSTON – They gather on statehouse steps with signs and bullhorns, risking arrest. They attend workshops on civil disobedience and personal storytelling, and they hold sit-ins and walk out of class in protest. They’re being warned that they could even lose their lives.

Students fighting laws that target undocumented immigrants are taking a page from the civil rights era, adopting tactics and gathering praise and momentum from the demonstrators who marched in the streets and sat at segregated lunch counters as they sought to turn the public tide against racial segregation.

“Their struggle then is ours now,” said Deivid Ribeiro, 21, an illegal immigrant from Brazil and an aspiring physicist. “Like it was for them, this is about survival for us. We have no choice.”

Undocumented students, many of whom consider themselves “culturally American” because they have lived in the U.S. most of their lives, don’t qualify for federal financial aid and can’t get in-state tuition rates in some places. They are drawing parallels between themselves and the 1950s segregation of Black and Mexican-American students.

“I think it’s genius,” said Amilcar Shabazz, chairman of the W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. “If you want to figure out how to get your story out and change the political mood in America, everybody knows the place to start your studies is the civil rights movement.”

For two years, Renata Teodoro lived in fear of being deported to her native Brazil, like her mother, brother and sister. She reserved her social contact for close friends, was extra careful about signing her name anywhere, and fretted whenever anyone asked about her immigration status, because she been living illegally in the United States since she was 6.

Yet on a recent afternoon, Teodoro gathered with other illegal immigrants outside the Massachusetts Statehouse with signs, fliers and a bullhorn then marched the streets of Boston, putting herself in danger of arrest by going public but hoping her new openness would prompt action on the DREAM Act, a federal bill to allow people like her a pathway to citizenship via college enrollment or military service.

“I don’t care. I can’t live like this anymore,” said Teodoro, 22, a leader of the Student Immigration Movement and a part-time student at UMass-Boston. “I’m not afraid, and I have to take a stand.”

The shift has been building, said Tom Shields, a doctoral student at Brandeis University in Waltham who is studying the new student movement.

“In recent months, there has been an interest in connecting the narrative of their struggle to the civil rights effort for education,” Shields said. 

The movement has gained attention of Congress. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in April, asking her to halt deportations of immigrant students who could earn legal status under DREAM, which stands for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors act, and which they’re sponsoring.

Last month, three illegal immigrant students demanding to meet with Arizona Sen. John McCain about DREAM were arrested and later detained for refusing to leave his Tucson office. High school and college students in Chicago and Denver walked out of class this year to protest Arizona’s tough new law requiring immigrants to carry registration papers. In December, immigrant students staged a “Trail of Dreams” march from Miami’s historic Freedom Tower to Washington, D.C., to raise support for DREAM.

Similar student immigrant groups have sprung up at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Houston.

By attaching themselves to the civil rights movement, Shabazz said, the immigrant students can claim the moral high ground and underdog status of the debate.

“The question now is … can they convince moderate, middle-of-the-road, independent voters to support them?” he said.

The Rev. William Lawson, an 81-year-old civil rights leader and retired pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston, called the student activists’ tactics courageous and said he’d like to meet them. But Lawson, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., cautioned student immigrant activists to prepare for peers getting arrested, deported or possibly killed.

“You do have to expect consequences. Many civil rights activists faced injury, sometimes death,” said Lawson. “And I’m not sure how many of these (students) understand the fundamental philosophy of nonviolence.”

Students have to keep in mind the audience they’re trying to win over, said Lonnie King, 73, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the group responsible for sit-ins at segregated restaurants across the South in the 1960s.

“They need to understand that the bulk of folks are in the middle,” King said. “They have to coach their message to make it broadly appealing.”

In Massachusetts, hundreds of student activists have gone through training by Marshall Ganz, a public policy lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School and a former organizer with the late Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers movement. At special camps, students attend workshops on civil disobedience, storytelling and media outreach.

Students who have attended the workshops even continue to use the well-known farm workers’ rallying clap at the end of organizing meetings.

“They know that clap,” Ganz said, “because I taught them that clap. It’s all about the experience.”

Teodoro said the training changed her life and showed her the cause was larger than herself.

During the rally last week in Boston, she led a march from the Massachusetts Statehouse to Sen. Scott Brown’s office at the John F. Kennedy federal building, which also houses U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices. Along with Carlos Savio Oliveira, 22, of Falmouth, Mass., another illegal immigrant, the pair walked into the federal building to hand Brown’s staff 1,500 letters of support for the DREAM Act.

Outside supporters wore T-shirts with the words “Brown is beautiful” a pun referring to the Chicano movement chant and Brown’s well-publicized nude photo spread in Cosmopolitan magazine as a college student.

Brown, whose office was previously the site of a sit-in by the same group, has not said whether he supports the bill.

In September, Teodoro and a dozen other students also took a weeklong trip from Boston to the South, with Shields driving.

Along the way, they met with Black former students who desegregated Clinton High School in Tennessee and Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. They visited civil rights museums and filmed the journey for a planned documentary. But the highlight was meeting Carlotta Walls LaNier, a member of the Little Rock Nine.

Teodoro cornered LaNier at a book signing of her memoir, A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.

“I went up to her at the signing and told her my story and tried not to cry,” Teodoro said. “She listened. Then, she hugged me.”

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