Students Galvanize for Immigrant Rights

A high school club in Wisconsin changes life for students, parents, and the larger community

By Ryan Knudson and Al Levie

Illustrator: Al Levie

Students demonstrate in front of Horlick High School in Racine, Wis., in favor of granting in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants.
Photo: Al Levie

Viviana, who had only lived in the United States for two years, walked nervously to the speaker’s podium at a press conference on the steps of her high school. Although she was remarkably confident in her ability to communicate with friends and classmates in English, she hesitated to deliver a speech in English to several hundred people. As the crowd of parents, students, community members, clergy, politicians, and press listened, she began to speak.

“My name is Viviana Pastrana,” she began. “I am a sophomore and I am an immigrant with papers, with permission to live here. I am a member of a group called Students United for Immigrant Rights because I want to support immigrants and struggle with them, especially with undocumented immigrant students.”

She continued, telling the story of a friend, an undocumented immigrant who has been in the United States most of her life, and who will not be able to afford a university education in Wisconsin simply because of her immigration status.

Viviana is a student at William Horlick High School in Racine, Wis., where we both teach. Al is a history and sociology teacher at Horlick, and Ryan teaches English as a second language to mainly Mexican immigrant students. Horlick has a diverse student body. About 18 percent of the students are Latino, 24 percent African-American, 2 percent Asian, and 56 percent European-American. More than 20 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The Racine community as a whole has similar demographics.

Over the past two school years, students have created change within their school and their community through their work in a student organization called Students United for Immigrant Rights that addresses social issues that closely affect them and their friends and families. Giving students opportunities to organize and become active around the issue of immigrant rights has helped change the culture of our school and created and strengthened bonds among students, families, the school, and the community. It has also helped students from marginalized groups become actively engaged, academically successful, and to rise to positions of leadership in the school and the community.

The Group’s Origins

Students United for Immigrant Rights evolved out of a lesson that Al presented to students in his Latino-American History class. The class initially attracted mainly second- and third-generation Chicano students, along with a handful of immigrant students. Students viewed the PBS video series Matters of Race (available at One segment was about a dramatic increase in numbers of Mexican immigrant workers moving to a small town in the southern United States. The students were appalled at the depictions of open racism on the part of white townspeople in the film. This led to a class discussion on the struggles that immigrants face both in the South and around Racine. At the students’ urging, Al took a personal day the very next day to participate in a rally with several students. At the rally, Al met people from Voces de la Frontera (Voices of the Border), an immigrant workers’ group from Milwaukee; this connection would prove mutually beneficial.

The event drew coverage in the Racine Journal-Times, which printed anti-immigrant letters. Richard Peterson’s letter read, “Hello, what don’t you understand? You are here illegally, why should you get any justice?” This letter set up a classroom discussion/response activity where students wrote individual and group rebuttals. The Journal-Times printed all of the students’ letters on its op-ed page. (Excerpts, pages 49, 51, and 53.) Readers took the students’ letters seriously, and weighed in both positively and negatively in response. In effect, Latino-American History students became the catalyst for a community debate on immigrant rights that was carried out on the op-ed page of the Journal-Times.

Soon thereafter, Christine Neu-mann-Ortiz, the director of Voces de la Frontera, contacted Al to tell him that state Rep. Pedro Colón of Milwaukee had introduced a bill in the Wisconsin Assembly that would allow undocumented immigrant students to attend state institutions of higher education at resident tuition rates. Al invited two representatives of Voces de la Frontera to speak to the Latino-American History class about the issue and the legislation. Ryan brought his English as a Second Language (ESL) students to the talk, and again, students wanted to take action. They arranged a field trip to Madison for a legislative committee hearing on the bill (AB 95). Students prepared testimony to deliver on behalf of undocumented immigrant students.

At the hearing, an undocumented immigrant student named Marylu Garcia made a strong argument in favor of the bill. “Some people say that immigrants should not receive any governmental help because they don’t pay their taxes, and that they are taking away from the United States illegally,” she said. “The reality is that immigrants do pay their taxes. But they are not able to collect them. So how can they be stealing money, when they are actually giving it away? Immigrants take the worst, low-paying jobs that no citizens want. And you call that fair? When immigrants are actually being exploited?” As the local press picked up on the issue, the students became known as strong proponents of the bill, which never made it out of committee.

Shortly thereafter, with financial assistance from Voces de la Frontera, Al, his wife Jennifer, Voces de la Frontera leader and longstanding community activist Maria Morales, and seven of the most active students traveled to Washington, D.C. The Center for Community Change organizedthree days ofactivities centering on the DREAM Act and Student Adjustment Act. These federal acts would offer undocumented students a pathway to citizenship, in-state tuition for college, and opportunities to apply for federal financial aid. Students trained in lobbying techniques and spent a daylobbying elected representatives.

They participated in a mock graduation ceremony at the U. S. Capitol and marched to the Department of Education todeliver lettershighlighting the fact that thousands of dreams were being denied because of lack of access to higher education. The Washington Post interviewed Xavier Marquez and Marylu Garcia and featured Xavier’s picture on the front page the following day. The assistance of community groups made it possible to choose students based on academic achievement in their Latino-American History class, their past participation in immigrant rights activities, and their future commitment to working for immigrant rights.

Marylu Garcia shared her testimony at the DREAM Act rally.

Afterward, students who participated in the trip to Washington organized a Cinco de Mayo celebration at Horlick High School. The event was partly a fundraiser to pay for the Washington trip, partly a celebration of Latino heritage, and partly an opportunity for students to report to the community what they had been doing. The theme of the event was “Latino-American History Students Making History.” Local Latino leaders spoke, community members prepared a Mexican meal, and students spoke and created displays about all of the events they had participated in. Hundreds of Latino students, family members, community members, and school officials came together for the first time for a school event.

The publicity about the Washington trip and the Cinco de Mayo celebration triggered anti-immigrant comments from a community member at a Racine Board of Education meeting. The speaker also called for Al’s dismissal, saying that he was teaching children to “raise hell.” Upset about the field trips to Madison and Washington, Renee Bradley, a community member, asked, “What, I ask you, does this have to do with Latin American history? Absolutely nothing. This has to do with an immigration issue. And because Mr. Levie feels too passionately about it, he is using and abusing his position as a teacher to advance his political views… . This is unacceptable. He is taking these children out of school to learn how to rally for immigrant rights? That’s not appropriate.” She added that, “Of course, [the students] are going to feel passionate about [immigrant rights]. Half of them are illegally in the country.” (Actually, all but two were U.S. citizens, so passion for the issue didn’t necessarily correlate to immigrant status.)

Al gave the students who participated in the Washington trip a copy of the meeting transcript and asked them to show their parents. Maria Morales, the president of the Racine chapter of Voces de la Frontera, called a meeting with the parents where they decided to go to the next school board meeting to let the board know they appreciated the school board’s giving their children the opportunity to participate in the trip. Kids and parents thanked the board for allowing them to participate, and students explained what they had learned as a result of the trip. The students’ and parents’ approach was a marked contrast to the shrill testimony of the anti-immigrant speaker, and the issue of Al’s dismissal died at that meeting.

At a debriefing meeting to discuss the Cinco de Mayo event, students agreed they wanted to continue working on immigration issues even after the Latino-American History class ended. Ryan suggested forming an official school club. Several students arranged a meeting with the school’s directing principal, Nola Starling-Ratliff, who gave permission. The students asked us to become club advisors, and Students United for Immigrant Rights became the student affiliate of Voces de la Frontera. Being connected to Voces gave Students United financial resources and staff support on immigrant issues. It also became a conduit to the community outside of school. The club began meeting informally to plan the next event, a Mexican Indepen-dence Day celebration in September. By the following school year, we had established a monthly meeting schedule. At our first meeting in September, we held elections for officers. Between two and four students competed for each position. Our executive board is made up of a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, and two immigrant student liaisons. The immigrant student liaison positions exist to encourage greater participation by immigrant students and to ensure that two immigrant students will sit on the board. Between 20 and 40 members attend the monthly after-school meetings, which are chaired by the president or vice president. Discussions focus on anything from ideas for political action to plans for a student barbecue. As the club has grown and received local attention, other teachers have begun asking about forming chapters in their schools.

Since its inception, Students United for Immigrant Rights has been active. Students wore graduation caps and gowns to demonstrate for granting of in-state tuition for undocumented students and traveled twice to Milwaukee for visits by President Bush and the Republican Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner. When Mark Belling, a conservative Milwaukee talk radio personality, referred to Mexican Americans as “wetbacks” on the air, Luisa Morales, the communications director of Students United, wrote a position paper that was published as a guest editorial in the Racine Journal-Times. Luisa also delivered the students’ position in a speech before Milwaukee Area Technical College officials asking them to pull more than $57,000 in advertising from Belling’s radio station. Recently students held a mock graduation rally and press conference at our high school, participated in a rally at Casa de la Esperanza in Waukesha, and traveled to Madison to lobby lawmakers to keep pro-immigrant education provisions in the state budget. At the invitation of State Representative Pedro Colón, Al and Xavier Marquez traveled to Madison to deliver testimony about the same provisions. All of these events featured state and local lawmakers delivering statements in support of extending educational opportunities to undocumented immigrant students. At two events, immigrant students delivered heartfelt speeches in favor of in-state tuition, and opposing the REAL ID act, a measure that would deny drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Carla Rotger (left) and Juan Marquez lead a march of 1,500 students and community members calling for a referendum on school spending.
Photo: Al Levie

The Changing Culture

Since beginning to organize students around the issue of immigrant rights, we have noticed changes in the interpersonal dynamics between immigrant and Chicano students. Before students began getting involved, there was mutual distrust and misunderstanding between immigrant students and Chicano students (those whose parents or grandparents were Mexican immigrants, but who themselves were born in the United States). Immigrant students saw Chicano students as sometimes being ashamed of their heritage because they often spoke little or no Spanish, and often seemed more American than Latino. The Chicano students often avoided helping or even talking to immigrant students. Many immigrant students refused to take bilingual English classes because many Chicano students took them. According to Marylu Garcia, “The Chicanos were not going to talk to the Mexicans unless the Mexicans went to them first. Both groups have a lot of pride, and neither group wants to give it up.” Physical altercations in the hallways and the cafeteria were not uncommon. As teachers who were trying to unite and organize students, this realization troubled us.

When the Chicano students in Al’s Latino-American History class began taking action, Ryan began encouraging his immigrant students to get involved. Soon a handful of members of both groups began reaching out to the other group, making a point to involve each other in discussions, saying hello in the hallways. Maria Vital, an immigrant student, credits Estela Cabrera, a Chicana student, with helping to break down barriers: “Estela is one of the girls who can speak English with Chicanos and Spanish with immigrants. She talked to everybody and introduced immigrants to Chicanos.”

Estela began hanging out in Ryan’s ESL classroom between classes, chatting in Spanish with immigrant students. Marylu gives credit to Xavier Marquez, saying that members of both groups feel that they are better than members of the other group and that “you have to be like Xavier—willing to talk to everybody.” Not surprisingly, Estela, Xavier, and other students who reached out were eventually elected to leadership positions, treasurer and president, respectively, and are now working together to promote the club to both Chicanos and immigrants. This is not to say that the rift has been totally healed, because it hasn’t. But where a year ago there was no collaboration at all, we are now seeing friendships form.

For immigrant students, action on immigrant issues has obvious and immediate importance. It is also important to the families of the Chicano students, who have either faced the same struggles, or know people who have. The leadership of Students United places a large importance on continuing to unite the club’s members. Xavier says, “All Latinos face racism, both U.S. citizens and immigrants. When we unite we can finally make things better for ourselves, our community, and our country.” Maria Vital says, “We have come together because we need to do things united.”

The relationship between the school and Latino students is also beginning to change. Horlick directing principal Starling-Ratliff says “We have seen a dramatic reduction in the Latino suspension rate. [The students’ activism] has broken down divisions among students and elevated the level of thinking. They talk and act on issues that are real to themselves and their communities.”

Subschool principal Mark Zanin says, “It has made Latino kids feel like they have a voice. The impact of the organization and the issues they’ve taken on has demonstrated to them, and to the community, that they do have a voice, and that people will listen.” Students United for Immigrant Rights leaders are now in hot demand, being actively recruited for leadership positions in other groups. Xavier has become a leader in student government, and took a very visible role in a fight to pass a school referendum. History teacher Jacqueline Loiacono saw Xavier in the hallway one day and invited him into her class to talk about harnessing anger to bring about positive change. She says, “He was in the hallway for a different reason, but he jumped right in. He was a life example of the community organizing that we had been discussing. The kids were just staring at him in awe. One student even wrote about him in her final exam, he made such an impression.”

Student leaders are being recognized for their newfound skills and their mature attitudes and interpersonal communication skills, all of which they attribute to their involvement in Students United for Immigrant Rights. As Latino students have seen their peers in positions of leadership, they seem be taking more pride in their school, and realizing that being involved in school while trying to create change in society is actually a good thing. Viviana says, “Supporting the rights of immigrant students has made students want to come to school more.”

When Viviana developed the speech she later delivered to Wisconsin legislators, members of advocacy groups, and the general public, she worked as hard—and with as much pride—as she would have on any term paper or presentation. Her family drove 40 miles in the snow to hear her speak. She has earned the respect of her immigrant peers, Chicano students, and other students and staff, who previously knew her only as a student with limited English proficiency, struggling to succeed in school.

By helping students understand the struggles they face, and by teaching them to organize around those issues, we have earned the respect and trust of our students. As a result, many of the students have responded by improving their attendance in all of their classes, and increasing their dedication to academic success. As Marylu said, “Being involved in the club has helped me see that my weaknesses weren’t as weak as I thought. The club helped me learn about my ability to make my voice heard.” Marylu often comes to class with new information on immigration issues and asks if she can write about it, initiative that she rarely displayed before joining the club.

Racine students in Washington, D.C. at a mock graduation ceremony.
Photo: Jennifer Levie

One of our most important goals in helping to organize Students United for Immigrant Rights was to involve Latino families in the school. The lack of involvement in school by Latino families was something that concerned teachers and administrators alike. Because we invite families to all Students United events, parents are beginning to get more involved and seem to feel more comfortable in a school setting. They also are encouraging their children to put more of a priority on their educations. Families seem excited about the possibilities that active involvement gives their children. A shift was apparent when Al’s job was on the line and many parents showed up at the Board of Education meeting to support him. It is now common for parents, even those who speak no English, to show up at Students United meetings. Some parents are as dedicated as their children, participating in every activity that Students United offers and volunteering to do more. One parent shows up at events that her children don’t even attend.

Students United for Immigrant Rights continues to grow. We have started a chapter at Park High School in Racine. A few teachers from other districts have contacted us asking how they can set up similar organizations. Several events have increased the group’s exposure, and the club attracts more students from more diverse backgrounds. As the 2004-05 school year came to an end, club leaders threw a cookout for anyone who had been involved this year. It was encouraging to see so many students from different ethnic backgrounds coming for hotdogs and hamburgers, playing volleyball, and throwing water balloons. And, as a clipboard circulated, many students signed up to spend the first few weeks of summer break planning and taking action with Students United for Immigrant Rights.

Ryan Knudson ( and Al Levie teach at William Horlick High School in Racine, Wis. For more information, visit