The legal and political arguments over President Donald Trump’s travel ban reflect a broader tension over how to deal with immigrants and refugees seeking entry into the United States. That tension became personal for us in February when we decided to show support for our fellow immigrant students at Paso Robles High School.
As bilingual high school seniors who tutor newcomers to the United States, we are well aware of rising xenophobia, both nationally and at our school. Last February, on the national “Day Without Immigrants,” we were astounded by the low attendance in our classes. It saddened us that so many of our fellow students felt it necessary to stay at home to be noticed. Their absence inspired us to take action. During the morning hours, a small core group of students collaborated to plan a peaceful demonstration in support of immigrants and their families. We spread word through social media and created hand-made signs (“Immigrants helped make America,” “Respect All People,” “Immigrants are not Criminals”). We hoped we wouldn’t stand alone.
As children of immigrant parents, we decided to organize this peaceful action as allies to our nation’s immigrants. We are all high school seniors accepted to four-year universities this fall, and we hope to contribute to our communities in the future. We have worked very hard to get to this point, in no small part to repay our parents for their sacrifices to provide us a better life.
In our history classes, we learn that their story is the story of America. We want the latest arrivals to our shores to have the same opportunity we’ve had, without the constant, looming fear of losing their parents. We recognize how hard it can be to succeed academically while battling anxiety, uncertainty and hateful discrimination.
For decades, the U.S. naturalization process has failed to keep pace with the enormous demands in the labor market. Until that gap is addressed, undocumented labor will fill that that need.
At lunch we were happily surprised to see our little group swell to more than 150 students within minutes. Word spread, and students of all backgrounds joined us in common cause. We gathered peacefully in the quad and marched to the sidewalk, where we held posters, chanted “Bridges Not Walls!” and cheered for every car that honked in support. It was an exhilarating, empowering and proud moment for each one of us.
We reject the notion of hard-working immigrants being marginalized and criminalized. We reject the notion of friends and neighbors being referred to as “aliens.” We reject the proposition that any person is inherently “illegal.” We are all human beings. We are sickened by the thought that the American Dream has become an American Nightmare for so many. We stand for basic human rights for all human beings. We will no longer be paralyzed by fear.
Our demonstration was not intended to disrespect anyone’s political opinions, and we were taken aback by the angry voices and hateful attacks that came in its wake. We were not protesting against our current president, and we do understand the complexities of national immigration policy. Simply put, we felt the need to take a stand, raise our collective voice and exercise our constitutional right to free expression. In the process, we sought to show solidarity with our fellow immigrants and their allies. Ours was a peaceful, student-led protest that occurred during lunch, and we went to class afterward. Our intention was not to divide our school, but rather to unite our school as a place of respect, tolerance and security for all.
We are proud of what we have accomplished, but we understand there are bridges yet to be built. We recognize that many people in our community oppose our act of solidarity. We hope to engage them in civil dialogue rather than divisive rhetoric. We ask that they have compassion for the most vulnerable among us, for those doing the jobs no one else will do, and for those struggling to support their families while living in the shadows. Their children are future doctors, lawyers, engineers and leaders in this great land of ours.
The only way we can create a safe environment for all immigrants in this country is with understanding. Compassion is the key to creating a unified nation and dismantling the walls of mistrust that divide us. We will all continue to speak out against xenophobia until we all recognize the rightful place of immigrants — regardless of immigration status — as an essential feature of the American landscape.
The writers, all seniors at Paso Robles High School, are active in AVID and MEChA. They also volunteer with the COMPAS program, tutoring English-language learners.