Don’t Punish Youth for Speaking Out

My friend Nancy Ambriz and I wrote this Op-Ed for the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday, March 29 after the student walkouts in Houston and across the country. They didn't publish it, so it might as well be here for all to read... JP

Miriam is a 17 year old student at North Shore Senior High School in East Houston. Her mother carried her across the Rio Grande when she was four years old. She has been active for several years in different community groups, fighting so that when she finishes her studies she will be able to work even though she has no Social Security number. Miriam walked out of school on Tuesday in protest of HR 4437, James Sensenbrenner’s bill, which would make her and her family into instant felons.

For years, students in Houston have been too scared to take actions like this, fearful for themselves and for their families and friends. But now, after last Saturday’s march of half a million people in Los Angeles and others across the country calling for earned legalization, students see that they can speak out too. In Houston last Saturday, there was a march sponsored by a group of young immigrant rights activists, in support of the DREAM Act which would provide a path to citizenship for successful high school and college students. The thousands of youth that turned out for this march are the informed leaders in their schools and communities. This week many of their classmates walked out with them.

The walkouts around the country, while often unorganized and impulsive, are the understandable product of a country that has left young people, especially young Latinos, out of the debate.

For years, many students in Houston and across the country have been working on the frontlines on immigration issues, because they affect them on such a personal level. Undocumented students like Miriam can study, work hard in school, strive to succeed and in the end, they will not be able to get a job because they do not have papers. Immigrant families are split on different sides of the border. Many have seen their own relatives deported or living in fear.

Surely all the young people that walked out of their schools cannot articulate perfectly the goals of their actions. But each and every one is drawing from their own personal experience. In the heat of the moment, it’s difficult for anyone to express all the reasons and the historical context for their actions. The walkouts are a visceral, emotional response to years of suffering and bottled up frustration. They carry the flags of their (or their parents’) countries of origin as a reaction to a society that tells them they do not exist. They carry American flags with hope for the future.

Their opinions might not be perfectly expressed or developed, but their frustration is clear.

In Washington and in most of the country, laws (like Sensenbrenner’s HR 4437) are made as if these young people did not even exist.

Despite their good intentions, a backlash is already building against the students. Naysayers on local television stations and in the blogosphere have labeled the students ignorant and uninformed. The response from area police departments and school districts has been arrests in the streets and citations for curfew violations. As was shown on all the local Houston television stations, students have been handcuffed, chased, and harassed. In their schools, they have been threatened with punishment and often put on lock-down.

Just last week, Houston City Council Members debated expanding the curfew on young people. One Council Member wisely asked for students to be involved and consulted before a decision was made. When those young people speak, surely they will ask for the curfew law to be changed to allow for peaceful protest. The schools have to deal with students leaving class on a case by case basis, but, under no conditions, should it be illegal for students to protest. They should not be arrested for expressing themselves, reacting to a society that would criminalize them or their families and friends for their very existence in this country.

Some commentators, including right-wing local politicians, have said that the kids just wanted to leave school. All across the metropolitan area, students left school on a rainy, cold day in order to make their voices heard. They took to the streets with bravado and with little pre-organization.

We would be wise to remember that young people have been at the forefront of all the historical movements for social change in our country, from the African American civil rights movement to the Chicano movement. Often, the opening stages are messy, emotional and loud. This one is no different. While, at this time, there is not a high degree of organization, the energy and the spirit for change are obvious.

We should recognize this week’s walkouts as reactions to a society that excludes young people, especially Latinos and the undocumented, and support them in their actions, not criminalize them in the very moment when they are finding their voices. The conventional wisdom is that since young people and the undocumented do not vote, therefore they are not important. Hopefully, these walkouts and marches will change that perception; these are voices our nation must hear.

Miriam will graduate from high school this year. She has not been to Mexico since she was four years old. She is home already. And, right now, we would do well to listen to her, instead of punishing her.

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