In Tucson, Immigrant Rights Fight Moves to the Classroom

In Tucson, Immigrant Rights Fight Moves to the Classroom

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Editor’s Note:
Youth have emerged as a driving force behind the immigrant rights movement – from DREAM Act supporters to those fighting Arizona’s anti-immigrant laws.  Elisa Meza, 20, is part of a youth coalition in Arizona that has been organizing against efforts there to dismantle a popular ethnic studies program in Tucson schools. Meza, a junior at the University of Arizona, writes that, increasingly, immigrant youth recognize anti-immigrant legislation as a threat to their futures.


When’s the last time youth clamored to take more literature and history courses?

A group of Tucson students demanded just that when they stormed a school district governing board meeting last Tuesday, where a controversial plan to cut the district’s ethnic studies department was to be voted on, and chained themselves to the seats of board members. Teachers and local elected officials were present to support the brave students engaged in civil disobedience, while a crowd of youth stood outside the packed chambers, rallying to show their support. The vote was put off until next month. The school district is now deciding whether to take punitive actions against students, using video footage captured during the demonstration.

The latest youth actions highlight a vibrant youth-led movement formed in the wake of Arizona’s SB 1070, a law that makes it a crime to be undocumented, signed by Gov. Jan Brewer last year. The governor hit another nerve when she signed H.B. 2281, the statewide ban on ethnic studies in public schools. The problem was that ethnic studies aren’t statewide. Ethnic studies courses are only available in Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) schools; the only Ethnic Studies Department in a public school district in the nation.

In Tucson, Arizona, the intentions of state legislatures became obvious. If there’s any political transparency existing in this country, it’s here in the form of racist legislation. Just a week after S.B. 1070 was signed, a specific community, and a specific program for a specific culture’s history was targeted. Arizona was derogatively specific in profiling a certain race, showing the legislature’s incompetence to solve internal migrant issues. With the ban on ethnic studies, the legislature again proves its racist tactics by profiling a certain people’s history and literature.

Before the signing of H.B. 2281, a movement has been gaining beautiful momentum. The revolution has since become irresistible because youth have demanded to understand the political atmosphere they are currently in.

In January of this year, youth were organized into a unique space to truly address the agency they have in their education. UNIDOS (United Non-discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies) formed organically into a youth coalition with five Tucson high schools represented. Youth possess the truth of how their classrooms affect their identities. If they say a certain program empowers them, the validity in their experience needs to be justified.

Unfortunately, not every school board member in TUSD feels youth voice to be priority. Despite numerous attempts to gain school board member’s attention, including an UNIDOS press conference held at a school board meeting on February 8 demanding a meeting with each member to voice their opposition to H.B. 2281, TUSD went forward without youth representation.

President of the school board, Dr. Mark Stegeman wrote a resolution that would dismantle the ethnic studies program by turning only the Mexican American studies courses into elective courses. These courses would no longer be used as core-credit, which are necessary for graduation. The move is a back-door approach to gutting the program, because electives are the first to be subject to budget cuts.

Without a second’s hesitation, UNIDOS came forward last Tuesday at the district board meeting to show their passion for ethnic studies with a simple goal in mind: stop the vote. Nine individuals chained themselves to the seats of the decision makers, thus forming an unofficial Youth School Board.

It was a moment that defied presumptions that youth voice is not as competent to make decisions on education. Youth had to physically prove that they have the right to an education that is relevant to their communities and their identities.

When a movement has to resort to direct action, the lies and bigotry of those in power comes to the forefront. In Arizona, the legislation continuously proposes its patriotism to anti-migrant, anti-education, and anti-human right ideology. Little do they realize that the more they struggle with understanding the resiliency of a knowledgeable people, the more the people will empower themselves. When this empowerment begins with the youngest minds, there’s no stopping the movement. The youth have spoken to let the movement move you.