Students Organize for Immigrant Rights

Six Pitzer College students hit the streets of Ontario on Oct. 26 to protest what they called the Ontario Police Department’s illegal impounding of vehicles at sobriety checkpoints. 

The group of demonstrators gathered a few of blocks from the checkpoints with large signs warning drivers of the checkpoints ahead. AB 353, a bill signed by California Governor Jerry Brown last year, prohibits police officers from impounding a vehicle at sobriety checkpoints if the driver’s only offense is the failure to hold a valid driver's license, but the protestors said that the Ontario Police Department was violating this law.

The six students are members of a newly formed club, Students for Immigration Justice, which was created to support local communities in seeking immigration reform. The club was officially formed Oct. 27, after students participated in a march to Ontario City Hall on Oct. 16 and demonstrated in Ontario on Oct. 26. 

“[The formation of the club] was in an effort to connect students with the actual community and to get some hands-on training for making the living situation better,” said Maxfield Estela PZ ’12, who is involved with the club. “I hope it will get people used to doing more direct action and more concrete change.” 

Before AB 353 was passed, a majority of impounded vehicles belonged to illegal immigrants who were unable to produce driver's licenses at checkpoints. The impoundments generated an estimated $40 million in towing fees, according to an investigation by the Investigative Reporting Program at University of California, Berkeley and California Watch in 2009. Additionally, police officers received about $30 million in overtime pay.

On Oct. 16, a group of 16 Pitzer students rallied in downtown Ontario with community members and other organizations, such as the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center and DREAMers. The group of about 30 people marched to Ontario City Hall, where they brought up the checkpoint problem to the city council. 

“Living in the Inland Empire, it’s a huge area of land ... so if you want to provide for your family, have a job, take your kids to school, you need a car. It's an absolute necessity," Estela said. "So people came out and spoke about all this at the City Hall meeting and talked about how these checkpoints are a business, essentially."

At the City Hall meeting, Ontario Mayor Paul Leon said that he agreed with the community members’ demand for people to follow the law, and that the first part of following the law is having a driver's license. 

“I think it's not going to be solved by politicians," Estela said. "There's no empathy. It's going to be kind of a hard struggle. It's going to be being at every checkpoint warning people until we just make it so police aren’t making enough money from it." 

He added, “One thing we’re trying to put emphasis on is that when we’re going to do these actions, that it’s completely in a supporting role. Students aren’t trying to tell people what to do, we’re there as a resource and we’re there in solidarity." 

Estela graduated in 2012 with a B.A. in International and Intercultural Studies. He is currently an urban fellow at Pitzer's Ontario House, an alternative residence for students interested in community engagement and social justice. 

Students interested in learning about the club can contact maestela@students.pitzer.edu.