On the eve of a large rally planned downtown, hundreds of Los Angeles-area high school students staged a walkout Friday to protest proposed federal legislation that calls for building a 700-mile-long wall along the Mexican border and making felons of illegal immigrants.
Disrupting classes at more than half a dozen schools, students marched onto city streets waving Mexican flags and clutching red, white and green balloons as they chanted “Viva Mexico!”
“Without immigrants, this country wouldn’t be anything,” said freshman Anna Benitez, as she joined about 500 fellow Huntington Park High students outside the school on Firestone Boulevard. “This protest is not about rebellion. We’re not criminals. We’re in this country to work.”
Walkouts also took place at Garfield, Roosevelt and Montebello high schools, while students at South Gate, Bell and San Fernando high schools protested on campus. At Bell, teacher Joan Dooley said hundreds of students climbed the gates when administrators declared a lockdown.
“Those kids had a right to walk out,” Dooley said. “When they saw this huge mob ... they should have opened the gate.”
Outside South East High in South Gate, at least one person was arrested on suspicion of throwing bottles at police officers, but it was unclear if it was a student, said Dan Isaacs, chief operating officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District. For the most part, however, the protests were peaceful, causing a few traffic tie-ups, he said.
In Riverside County, 400 students at two campuses in the Moreno Valley Unified School District held rallies but did not leave school grounds, officials said.
Students said they were protesting what activists see as mostly punitive legislation proposed by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) that the House passed in December.
Sensenbrenner’s bill would crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, penalize those who assist them and step up enforcement along the Mexican border, a move that could include erecting 700 miles of fencing.
The bill would also make it a felony to enter the country illegally. Supporters say tougher controls are needed to secure the country’s border and to protect American jobs.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin hearings Monday on a possible compromise bill, after several weeks of debate over whether to concentrate solely on enforcement or to also develop a temporary guest worker program. The highly charged issue has divided the Republican-controlled Congress.
“This economy is based on immigrants,” said Garfield High School student William Pasillas, 14, who left campus Friday morning to participate in a rally. Pasillas said his parents came from Mexico in the 1970s and now are naturalized citizens. “Why shouldn’t other people get that opportunity?”
Other students were protesting what they said was the racism that many immigrants face.
“I’m here to make sure that the Mexicans get their freedom, their rights,” said Montebello High School student Jeannette Garcia, 15, who held up a sign that said “Freedom.”
Los Angeles school officials said activists and community groups e-mailed students, urging them to walk out. Several students said they received fliers and heard about the demonstrations from friends.
“We have always condoned freedom of expression on our campuses,” said Isaacs, the L.A. Unified official. “We do not condone students leaving campus.”
A protest march in downtown Los Angeles is planned for today as part of a “Weekend of Action” against the Sensenbrenner bill and related legislation. A similar demonstration in Phoenix on Friday drew more than 15,000 protesters.
Immigrant rights groups said they were demanding more tolerant and humane laws that would give undocumented workers a chance at becoming citizens.
“We want to send a message to Congress that enough is enough, that we need real reform that gives folks here a path to legal residency and citizenship,” said Alvaro Huerta, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “We don’t want this second-class status.”