High School Students to Protest Monday.

On Monday they will meet at 10 a.m. at Steele Indian School Park and then march to the state Capitol


Students call for voice on legal status

Mel Melndez The Arizona Republic Apr. 8, 2006 12:00 AM

To some, they're Arizona's future teachers, engineers and doctors. To others, they're undocumented immigrants unworthy of a U.S. education.

They are students brought here illegally as children who now face uncertain futures because, as such immigrants, they don't qualify for most financial aid and can't be lawfully employed after graduating from high school or college.

And their status is fueling a renewed sense of activism as more undocumented youths take to the frontlines to oppose legislation that they consider discriminatory, activists say. And in the shadow of Monday's pro-immigrant march, some Valley students are planning their own demonstration and defying the pleas of Latino leaders to stay in school.

"Many students don't have their papers, but they're good kids with dreams of being somebody," said 17-year-old Adrian Mendoza, a student at Metro Tech High School in Phoenix. "But they're frustrated with a system that basically says 'study hard' and then says 'but you can't get a job because you don't have your papers.' That's why so many of us are protesting."

Mendoza recently joined hundreds of Valley students, many of them undocumented, in school walkouts to oppose House Resolution 4437, a proposed federal bill that aims to criminalize undocumented immigrants. Thousands of students rallied against the bill, including high-schoolers in Tucson, Los Angeles, San Diego, St. Louis and Houston. Thousands more plan to protest nationwide Monday, with Phoenix preparing for nearly 100,000 marchers.

Hundreds of Valley youths are set to meet at 10 a.m. at Steele Indian School Park and then march to the state Capitol, where some protesters from the main rally will join them, student organizers said.

The youths say they don't want to be forgotten in the debate and want elected leaders to give more consideration to the DREAM Act, which aims to grant undocumented students a chance to stay in the country and be productive.

Who are they?

Immigrant rights activists say the student protests highlight the desperation felt by undocumented immigrants. But some who oppose such immigration say the students are not entitled to financial assistance or employment and should be deported.

"Taxpayers should not be subsidizing their education because they shouldn't be here at all," said Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates stricter immigration reform. "We shouldn't be educating them or employing them."

For others, including many educators, the issue isn't that cut and dried.

"Sure, it's wrong to be here illegally. But most of these kids were brought here through no choice of their own, which isn't the same thing," said Fredi Lajvardi, a marine science teacher at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix. "Instead of penalizing them, we should help them become contributing members of society, which helps all of us. We need these kids educated for a healthy workforce."

The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., estimates that 65,000 undocumented students annually graduate from U.S. high schools. Some statisticians call that number conservative.

Arizona has more than 154,000 English-language learners, and education officials estimate that half of those are undocumented. Also, many of them have spent most of their lives in the country and are unsure where they will go if they can't legally work here, or if they are deported.

"So we shouldn't be surprised at how our kids are responding," said Rep. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix. "For them, this is personal."

Although undocumented students in Arizona qualify for in-state tuition, private scholarships or grants, they're barred from all forms of state, federal or institutional aid, such as grants, loans, scholarships and work-study programs.

"So applying to a university isn't an option for them, even when they're more than qualified academically to attend," Lajvardi said. "It just breaks your heart."

Phoenix students DREAM

Four former Wilson Charter High School classmates gained national attention after being detained at the U.S.-Canadian border while competing in a 2002 international solar-power boat competition. The "Wilson Four's" deportation case was tossed out in July by a federal judge, but the students' future remains murky because the government is appealing.

The students swiftly became the collective face of the DREAM Act, a federal bill that aims to grant legal status to undocumented high school graduates living here for at least five years. It has consistently failed to make it through Congress.

Like those students, Jesus Hernandez, a senior at Westwood High School in Mesa, also worries about a future that looks dim, even though the 18-year-old plans to enroll this fall at Mesa Community College.

"I need to be a citizen here to receive the rights I need," said Hernandez, who was brought into the country illegally from Sonora about 13 years ago. "This is my place. I deserve the same rights as everybody else."

Staff writer JJ Hensley contributed to this article.

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