For immigrant students, joining the ‘March for Our Lives’ is a fight for their own

The World
Camila Duarte rallies her fellow students at Pompano Beach High School

Camila Duarte rallies her fellow students at Pompano Beach High School as part of their walkout for gun control. Duarte lost two friends after a gunmen shot and killed 17 people at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Courtesy of Camila Duarte

Camila Duarte recalls the chaos in her community after the shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The 18-year-old feared for the safety of her peers at the school. Many of her friends were unharmed. But Martin Duque Anguiano and Joaquin Oliver were among the 17 killed on Valentine’s Day when Nikolas Cruz, a fellow student, allegedly fired a semiautomatic rifle into a crowded hallway.

“Everyone knows someone who was affected so it hits very close to home,” she says. “It’s not something that happened in the Midwest or on the West Coast. It happened right here, 15 minutes away from my house.”

“It could have been my brother. It could have been me,” she adds.

Duarte is a senior at Pompano Beach High School, just 15 miles west of Parkland. She says losing friends makes this school shooting more personal. Learning of Cruz’s hate-filled ideologies made her committed to speaking out. Now, she and many other immigrant students are lending their voices to the fight for gun control.

Along with a group of more than a dozen activists, Duarte will make the nearly 15-hour journey from Pompano Beach to Washington, DC, joining thousands of participants who are expected to rally for gun control at Saturday’s March for Our Lives. The march is organized by survivors of the shooting in Parkland and includes various activists groups, including Black Lives Matter, to call for stricter federal gun laws.

“Many of us in communities of color or who are immigrants have been trying to escape gun violence for decades,” she says. “For some of us we leave dangerous countries or unsafe neighborhoods just to feel more unsafe in school.”

Duarte came to the US at the age of 14, fleeing violence in Venezuela. She says school safety and immigration are deeply intertwined.

“I know DACA recipients who go to [Marjory] Stoneman Douglas and they’re scared for their lives,” she says. “Imagine going every day either being scared you’ll be sent back to a dangerous country or shot dead in your own school.”

Kenya Downs will be live in the Global Nation Exchange Facebook discussion group at 10:00 a.m. ET, on Saturday March 24 with Camila Duarte and other immigrant students who are participating in the "March for Our Lives" rally in Washington, DC. Join the conversation.

Duarte has experience as an immigration activist. She works with the Miami chapter of United We Dream, a youth-led advocacy organization that campaigns for comprehensive immigration reform. After the shooting in Parkland, Duarte organized her peers to take part in a rally at her school in Pompano Beach on National Walkout Day, calling for reform to what she calls “Florida’s lax gun laws.”

Since the shooting, however, Florida has enacted new restrictions on guns, including raising the minimum age of purchase to 21, with some exceptions, and instituting a waiting period for background checks and stricter mental health screenings. But Parkland students have criticized the bill saying the measures don’t go far enough to protect them from assault rifles like the one used by Cruz.

Duarte is sharing her story because, she says, easy access to guns also makes immigrant children vulnerable. Many of the US’s deadliest mass shootings involved gunmen who targeted victims because of their race, religion, sexuality or country of origin. Immigrants have also been both the unintended and targeted victims.

At Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Joaquin Oliver became a US citizen just a year before he was killed. Like Duarte, the 17-year-old migrated to the US from Venezuela. And Peter Wang was a first-generation American whose family immigrated from China.

“It’s a very terrifying reality for young people of color and immigrants who go to our schools every day,” says Alana Greer, attorney and co-founder of the Community Justice Project, based in Miami. “Not only could your school be the scene of the next mass shooting, but you could be singled out because the shooter is a bigot.”

According to data from the FBI, the number of reported hate crimes spiked in the year following the presidential election in 2016. And the number of hateful incidents — events that are rooted in hate but aren’t federal crimes — have also skyrocketed, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC reports many of these incidents are happening in schools and on college campuses.

Duarte fears that increasing hate, combined with easy access to guns, can make students of color and immigrants more of a target.

“[Students of color and immigrants] have been scared for our lives for a long time,” she says. “But especially now when our classmates are feeling bolder about being racist, flying Confederate flags on their backpacks or yelling ‘build a wall’ at the Latino students, it makes you more fearful.”

Even proposed solutions could produce unintended consequences. Some officials have called for more uniformed police in schools.

But experts caution an increase in police in schools will only contribute to the school-to-prison or school-to-deportation pipelines. Studies have shown the phenomenon disproportionately impacts black, Latino and immigrant students.

Greer says that, despite “insufficient evidence to show an increased law enforcement presence is effective,” too often the solution to school violence “continues to be the militarization of schools, especially where students of color are the majority.”

According to a study from the Congressional Research Service, between the Columbine school shooting in 1999 and 2005, the Department of Justice invested more than $750 million into hiring school resource officers and other law enforcement personnel. Still, there’s little evidence that this made schools safer. But the study did find that children who attended schools with resource officers were more likely to face arrest for minor crimes.

“Before, issues that weren’t even a threat to school safety might have gotten you a detention or a call home,” she says, “Now it’s having black and brown children being taken away in handcuffs. And for undocumented students, that can result in deportation,” Greer says.

Others, including President Donald Trump, have proposed arming a select number of teachers and administrators. Opponents, including survivors of the Parkland school shooting, have called this suggestion irresponsible and counterproductive. Duarte insists it’ll put more students at risk.

“I’d feel less safe knowing it’s possible my teacher might have a gun on her,” she says.

Duarte admits there may never be a simple, one-size-fits-all solution. But that’s why she joining the march and lending her support as an immigrant, as a young woman, and as a student of color: Just because reform is hard, doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting for.

“We’re the emerging leaders of the country and this Saturday everyone will see that we’re ready to lead the nation toward making our schools safer,” she says.