Immigrant Movement Tactics Intensify

May 21, 2010

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After walking out of Benito Juárez Community Academy, students rally Friday afternoon in Little Village. (WBEZ/Chip Mitchell)

Chicago-area immigrant activists are following through on pledges to adopt more militant tactics. Today hundreds of high-school students protested for an immigration overhaul by walking out of classes. A suburban Pentecostal pastor is leading a hunger strike. And dozens of Catholic parishioners are planning a 53-mile protest walk this weekend. But the tactics aren't going over well with some community members who want more immigration enforcement.

The activists are trying to push President Obama to take action against a tough new immigration law in Arizona. And they want his administration to let up on deportations.

Ambi: Juárez? Walk out.

In Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, about 350 students poured out of Benito Juárez Community Academy. The organizers included senior Darlene Bueno.

BUENO: These immigration deportations, they're ripping up our families. It's not just affecting that, though. It's affecting our studies because they're risking our education when we're in class and all we keep constantly worrying about is, ‘Is my mom going to make it home today? What happens if my mom gets stopped today? What happens if my dad doesn't come home today?' And that's all that's running through our mind every day when our parents step out to go to work.

The students marched to a shopping center in nearby Little Village where immigration agents armed with assault rifles made dozens of arrests in a 2007 raid.

Ambi: Arizona, shame on you.

Today marchers from two other high-schools converged on the shopping center for a rally. Students from a fourth school, Farragut, were also planning to walk out. But officials locked most doors and blocked the main entrances with security guards.

The students have allies in neighborhoods and towns not known for immigrant protests.  In south-suburban Glenwood, a Pentecostal pastor named Martín Santellano is leading more than a dozen members of his congregation in what they're calling a hunger strike. People close to Santellano say he hasn't had any food or liquids besides water since Sunday evening. Santellano insists he has no problem with deporting illegal immigrants who have criminal records.

SANTELLANO: But all these innocent people that come here only to work and give a better future to their families. I know they're here illegally, but they are hard-working families.

Dozens of Catholic parishioners, meanwhile, are planning a walk this weekend from Chicago to northwest suburban Woodstock. They're upset that McHenry County has joined seven other Illinois counties in a federal program called Secure Communities. The program enables jailers to run criminal suspects through a database to see if they're wanted for immigration violations.

The immigrant activists are likening their cause and their tactics to the African American struggle against Jim Crow in the 1950s and '60s. Not everyone agrees.

WOJTOWICZ: This is not a civil rights issue. This is a legal issue.

Catherina Wojtowicz is a Tea Party activist on Chicago's Southwest Side.

WOJTOWICZ: They're here illegally. Since when, when you break the law, do you get rewarded? We are not one world order yet. We have borders for a reason.

President Obama, for his part, says he has directed the Justice Department to examine the Arizona law. Passing immigration reform, the president says, will take more help from Republicans in the Senate.