Trump Immigration Policies Chill Some School Protests
By Betsy Joles
AUSTIN — On Jan. 20, senior Blanca Sanchez-Luna led students in a walkout at East Side Memorial High School to protest President Donald Trump’s inauguration and his immigration policies. Since then, Trump administration actions have made her afraid to speak her mind.
Sanchez-Luna’s change of heart came after a series of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Austin in mid-February that sought out undocumented individuals for deportation. The raids put a damper on protests at area schools, but the chill set in with a vengeance at East Side Memorial and Del Valle High School, where Hispanic enrollment is 78 percent and 85 percent, respectively. Many of the students or their family members are undocumented.
Said Sanchez-Luna , 18: “A lot of times, we’re scared to stand up or talk.” Sitting in a classroom circle with teachers and classmates, Sanchez-Luna broke into tears as she described a tense exchange when her mother caught wind of her daughter’s walkout. “‘I don’t want you doing that anymore,’” Blanca recalls her mother saying. ‘“And if you do, don’t come back.”’
Sanchez-Luna moved to Texas in 2003 from Guanajuato, Mexico. Since 2012 she has been protected from deportation under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. With many DACA “dreamers” questioning their future under a Trump administration, Sanchez-Luna has come to understand the risks of political engagement.
Those risks were driven home for Del Valle senior Alejandro Torres when an uncle was deported in the February raids. Though Torres, 18, is a U.S. citizen, he worries his activism could put family members at risk—a concern he says keeps most of his classmates from raising their voices. “The majority of the people are afraid,” he said in a telephone interview.
Meanwhile, students at East Side Memorial and Del Valle are exercising political expression in modest ways, focusing on changes in school policy. “They want to start small,” said Rosalinda Rodriguez, a government and economics teacher at East Side Memorial. She recently told a visiting reporter that political interest had helped revive a debate over how to cut long cafeteria lines. It may seem like a small thing, Rodriguez said, but it’s keeping students safe–“They can do it at school.”
Victoria Longoria, an advanced placement English teacher at Del Valle, helped students organize weekly “Socratic Seminars,” in which they discuss immigration issues. They’re planning an event in June to raise awareness about refugees in their community by working with Caritas of Austin and Refugee Services of Texas.
Jason Zielinski, director of communications and community relations at Del Valle, said in a telephone interview that he’s encouraging students to voice concerns at school. “School is the safest place for students to be,” he said.
As part of an AISD program focused on mental health, Laura Gomez-Horton, clinical director of YMCA of Austin, recently visited East Side Memorial to talk about fear and political engagement. She’s encouraging students to engage only at a level at which they feel safe. With legitimate threats to undocumented families, Gomez-Horton said, students need to listen to their instincts. “Fear is natural. Fear keeps us alive,” she said.
For Torres, Sanchez-Luna and other student organizers, fear means finding a balance between danger and engagement. Seeing how deportations affected his family, Torres helped organize a walkout at Del Valle on Feb. 28. Given the anxiety among his classmates, he’s not about to ask them to join protests outside school grounds. Nonetheless, he said he hopes they’ll stay engaged.
“I want to … make them understand that it’s happening,” said Torres. “It’s not a game.”
Sanchez-Luna is helping plan meetings with students at East Side Memorial’s neighboring International High School to support recently arrived immigrants. “If I don’t stand up for them, who’s going to stand up for me?” she said.