Melvin Oliver designates Pitzer a ‘sanctuary college’

The Claremont Colleges United Against Hate march on Nov. 11 was host to a range of political issues, including the safety of undocumented students. (Liam Brooks • The Student Life)

In a statement to the Pitzer College community on Nov. 30, Pitzer President Melvin Oliver designated the college a “sanctuary college” and wrote that the college would provide protection for undocumented students and refuse to voluntarily cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

With the uncertainty about the status of undocumented immigrants caused by Donald Trump’s upcoming presidency, colleges and universities across the country are searching for ways to protect students, staff, and faculty from potential deportation or discrimination because of immigration status.

In a joint statement organized by Pomona President David Oxtoby and endorsed by Oliver, Scripps President Lara Tiedens, Claremont McKenna College President Hiram Chodosh, and Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe, over 400 other college and university presidents expressed their support for the continuation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Created through executive order by President Barack Obama in 2012, DACA has provided temporary relief to over 700,000 undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as children.

“We have seen the critical benefits of this program for our students, and the highly positive impacts on our institutions and communities. DACA beneficiaries on our campuses have been exemplary student scholars and student leaders, working across campus and in the community,” the statement reads.

“This is both a moral imperative and a national necessity. America needs talent – and these students, who have been raised and educated in the United States, are already part of our national community. They represent what is best about America, and as scholars and leaders they are essential to the future.”

It is unclear what the Trump administration will do to the DACA program. During his post-election interview with 60 Minutes, Trump affirmed his commitment to deport criminals, drug dealers, and gang members, none of whom are eligible for the DACA initiative.

“What we’re dealing with is uncertainty,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, in an article calling for the continuation of DACA.  “DACA has created a database that has been used to help a large number of people. It could obviously be used now in a way that could harm those people, and that is the concern. We have been underscoring that it is not clear what, if anything, the Trump administration is likely to do with DACA.”

In his Nov. 30 statement, Oliver expressed Pitzer College’s commitment to stand with immigrants, DACA students, and Muslim students against discrimination for their immigration status or religious beliefs.

“Our campus, committed to social justice, intercultural understanding and the richness of diversity in our community, is rightly concerned that important members of our community—immigrant students, DACA students, Muslim students—will be targeted because of their immigration status or religious beliefs,” Oliver wrote. “As a community, we stand with them and as a college we pledge our support to them. It is for these reasons that I, and the Board of Trustees, declare Pitzer College to be a sanctuary college regarding immigration.”

Oliver wrote in the statement that Pitzer will refuse to voluntarily comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the investigation of the immigration status of members of the Pitzer community, uphold the College’s dedication to providing financial aid to undocumented and DACAmented students, and providing enhanced support for these students so that they can enjoy the full benefits of a Pitzer education.

“I am aware that these are small steps, but it is the beginning of a long process to ensure all our students are protected to the fullest extent possible,” Oliver wrote. “This will mean that we pursue resources to support those efforts so that all our students, undocumented or of immigrant status, can continue to enjoy the value of a Pitzer education and become the socially responsible citizens of the world that truly make a difference.”

Oliver’s statement was inspired by a petition created by Pitzer’s Latinx Student Union (LSU), which urged the President to issue a statement demonstrating the college’s commitment to upholding its core values of intercultural understanding and social justice.

“We at Pitzer urge you to make our college a sanctuary center for higher education and that we will not engage in the persecution and bigotry against Muslims, LGBTQIA people, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Mexicans and Latinos, immigrants, international students, women, sexual assault victims, and disabled populations,” LSU wrote in their statement.

In an interview with TSL, LSU President Hernan Gallo-Conejo PZ ‘17 said that the college had a supportive response to their petition.

“LSU strongly appreciates and thanks President Oliver, the Board of Trustees, the Faculty Executive Committee, and all faculty and staff involved in this collaborative effort to declare Pitzer College a sanctuary center of higher education,” Gallo-Conejo said.

Pitzer Student Senate has also introduced legislation to stand in solidarity with current and future undocumented students at Pitzer College. The Resolution, which called upon Oliver to release a statement detailing concrete measures to protect undocumented students, will also be sent to the Claremont City Council, requesting that civic leaders approve and designate Claremont a sanctuary city.

“I believe ensuring the safety of its people should be a top priority for any city that believes in equality for all,” said Shivani Kavuluru PZ ‘19, secretary for the Pitzer College Student Senate. “I just hope our city, one that does have an undocumented population, supports its community by uniting with its people against the hate and divisive rhetoric that Trump’s presidency brings.”

Not every college president believes “sanctuary campus” is the best term to use. Michael Olivas, acting president of the University of Houston-Downtown and a signatory on the statement of college presidents supporting DACA, fears that simply signing onto the document is insufficient to protect vulnerable students.

“The term ‘sanctuary’ is a term that is too fraught with restrictionist meanings or misunderstandings about the difference between “defying the law” or choosing not to implement and discretionary practices, for policy, efficacy or other reasons. Worse, it has no legal meaning and the admonitions are vague and impossible to implement, which will only frustrate people more,” Olivas wrote in his essay to Inside Higher Ed.

Olivas then clarified his position, “I prefer more meaningful actions, such as working with student groups and their supporters: advocacy groups, bar associations, social service agencies, philanthropies and the usual support infrastructures for colleges and communities.”

Though Pomona has not officially been designated as a sanctuary campus, the college’s actions to support vulnerable students have inspired hope among some students.

“Despite not having a ‘sanctuary’ status, we have far more protections than almost all the colleges that have declared themselves as sanctuary institutions,” Maria Jose Vides PO ‘18 wrote in an email to TSL. “I believe we have gone above and beyond the loose definition of the term through the actions we have taken as a college.”

“Ultimately, a title will do little for me in the face of potential persecution and deportation—resources will do much more,” Vides wrote.

This article was corrected on Dec. 4, 2016 to clarify that Oliver wrote in his statement that Pitzer College would not “voluntarily” comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The article originally omitted the word “voluntary.”

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