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Cal State LA Pushes to Protect Undocumented Students

undocumented protest

On August 28, 2016, three months before the election, Fox News reported that Donald Trump told a crowd in Iowa that deportations would begin one hour into his swearing-in as our country’s 45th president. Now, his win this past November has forced our nation to face the very real, and catastrophic, possibility of the president-elect fulfilling a key campaign promise that would damage our economy and the lives of millions; a stringent immigration policy that seeks to forcibly remove millions of undocumented Americans.

On November 9, we collectively turned our heads to confront a national landscape the likes of which we had never seen. At the center of it all was a candidate's campaign, laced with equal parts vitriol and xeneophopia, that rallied a mass of fringe voters into something resembling a political movement. The promises Trump made back when he first announced he would run (the construction of a wall along the U.S./Mexico border, the immediate deportation of immigrants) no longer seemed outlandish and bombastic.

The mass rallies of protestors galvanizing around a shared concern for the future of our country in the wake of the most contentions campaign in our history made one thing clear: a large majority of Americans were angry and didn’t want Donald J. Trump as their president. On the campus of Cal State LA, where I teach and work as the director of our budding MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Arts, I watched waves of African-American, Asian, and Latinx students gathered at the steps outside the bookstore in solidarity and to express their outrage over the previous night’s results.

"I was brought here when I was four. Will I have to pack up my things and go? What am I supposed to say to my mother?"

Students took turns stepping into a circle, passing a bullhorn back and forth, and they spoke, their voices sometimes breaking, about their fears and frustrations. “I’m a DREAMer,” a young student said, “I was brought here when I was four. Will I have to pack up my things and go? What am I supposed to say to my mother? My friends?”

In the days and weeks that followed, many of my colleagues shared stories about panicked students too afraid to step foot on campus for fear of being caught up in the raids Trump promised would occur should he be elected president. There were reports of the members of a conservative student group on campus writing “build the wall” on the chalkboard inside the classroom where a colleague of color taught. Other students reported being verbally harassed and intimidated.

Thus, the “sanctuary campus” movement was established here. “The idea behind [this designation],” The Atlantic reported,  “is to protect young people who feel threatened by [Trump’s] victory.” And while California has openly defied Trump and Governor Jerry Brown has declared war on him and his policies, states like Texas have taken the opposite approach. In a tweet dated December 1, Governor Greg Abbott wrote: “Texas will not tolerate sanctuary campuses or cities. I will cut funding for any state campus if it establishes sanctuary status.”

Through our efforts on the campus of Cal State LA to declare ourselves a sanctuary campus, one thing remained clear: we believed it was our duty and responsibility to protect and shelter the most vulnerable of our students from unlawful arrest and detainment. It was, we agreed, the humane and socially just thing to do.

We’ve been forced to analyze and question the word “sanctuary,” however, examining how it would pertain to our university’s ability to implement polices aimed at protecting its undocumented citizens. Questions have been raised about the very meaning, how the word itself would be applied around campus, and the ways in which it would fundamentally alter the day-to-day functions of university staff, faculty, and administrators.

California State University, Fullerton Professor and Chair of the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, Dr. Alexandro José Gradilla explained to me, “[Cal State Fullerton] didn't want to get hung up on wording or semantics,” as his school petitioned to declare itself a sanctuary campus. He went on to say: “Some have mentioned that we can't protect these students because at the end of the day they are here ‘illegally.’ Our students need to see that we stand with them, and that we won’t sit idly by as their rights as human beings are violated through acts of hostility and intimidation. So these strategic resolutions send a message of support to the students and the key stakeholders who work with students. Perhaps the truest definition of the term ‘sanctuary campus’ is one in which the rights of individuals, documented or undocumented, are not trampled on by Trump and his backers -- the rich and powerful looking to malign and obfuscate.”

"Our students need to see that we stand with them, and that we won’t sit idly by as their rights as human beings are violated through acts of hostility and intimidation."

Confronted with more questions than answers, our faculty found itself working with administrators that include our president and provost, representatives from the Erika J. Glazer Family Dreamers Resource Center located on our campus, and a coalition of professors from departments such as Liberal Studies, Chicana/o, Latina/o Studies, Anthropology, Latin American Studies, Liberal Studies, and Television, Film, and Media.

A resolution was drafted and brought before the academic senate which, among other things, makes clear our campus’ stance against unfair interrogation of any vulnerable students and staff and our commitment to protecting the educational access of all of our students regardless of race, nationality, sexual orientation, and immigration status.

But how far can a campus go in order to protect its most vulnerable university citizens from deportation by the likes of Donald Trump, who has assembled the wealthiest cabinet in American history, whose retaliatory tactics and capricious views have become common practice and threaten to erode the fundamental principals our nation was founded on, who compliments tyrants like Vladimir Putin?

Our schools, at least here in California, will continue to be safe spaces that provide sanctuary for our brightest and most promising minds, undocumented or otherwise, as long as there are faculty, staff, and administrators willing to challenge and question policies put in place which seek to harm the innocent, tear apart families, and wreak financial havoc on our economy. That is something this writer, teacher, and activist, the son of undocumented immigrants, can -- and will -- certainly get behind. 

Top Image: Joe Raedle / Staff


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