For students, cost of protest can be high
About 100 Texas students are disputing their arrests for skipping class to protest immigration reform.
HOUSTON — Jennifer Avilez says her parents, both from Mexico, worked hard their whole lives to get her into a good school. So when she walked out of that school in late March to protest an immigration bill passed by the House, she did it for all those who hadn't achieved as much.
"Other people need to have the same chance as they did," she says. "This country was started by immigrants, after all."
But her protest came to a halt when she was arrested and accused of criminal behavior by the local police.
The case against Jennifer, a student who takes AP courses at Stony Point High School in Round Rock, Texas, is one of hundreds like it that pit students' free-speech rights against local rules against truancy.
Other immigration protesters have faced repercussions, too. Many employers took a hard line by firing those who didn't show up for work. And during the rallies, which took place in dozens of cities nationwide this spring, some people were ticketed by police for minor infractions such as loitering or hindering traffic.
But no group was criminally charged on such a large scale as the students in Round Rock, a conservative, mostly white suburb near Austin, the state capital. The number of Hispanics there has only recently begun to increase.
"What was being done by those students is in the highest traditions of this country and we would hope that their idealism would be weighed against the rules that they've broken," says Josh Bernstein, a senior policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, a Washington organization that promotes immigrant rights.
Across the country, educators punished protesters with detention, suspension, and even canceled their extracurricular activities. But some school districts got the police involved.
On the first day that Round Rock students protested, police officers gave warnings, which Jennifer says she never heard. The next day, March 31, police rounded up more than 200 students who were heading to a rally in Austin. Officers issued tickets for violating daytime curfew, a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.
What makes this case unique is that the city has an ordinance that allows for free speech and assembly – which trumps the curfew-violation statute, says Ernest Saadiq Morris, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin.
But violators must show beyond a reasonable doubt that they were actually exercising that right, "and not just running roughshod through the city," writes Eric Poteet, with the Round Rock Police Department, in an e-mail interview.
He says that only a certain percentage of marchers were actually protesting immigration reform. "The rest were just skipping school."
In addition, says Officer Poteet, the student protests required the presence of police officers who were needed elsewhere, affecting the department's ability to serve the community.
To date, more than 100 of the Round Rock students have pleaded guilty or did not contest the charges and will either pay a fine or do community service.
The other 98 have requested trials; the Texas Civil Rights Project is defending 82 of those.
The trials will take place from June through November. The first five have already been dismissed. Jennifer's trial is set for July 7.
"Schools could have disciplined students in far more appropriate ways than criminalizing them," says Morris.
But students didn't need to skip school – or break any laws – to send a strong message, says Flavia Jimenez, an immigration policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza in Washington, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization.
"We feel that children in this country did a very courageous thing by speaking up about ways the illegal-immigration issue has affected them, but we were not in any way encouraging them to walk out of their classes," says Ms. Jimenez. "Education is extremely important to the Latino community and will do more for us in the long run."