Pomona College has repeatedly made headlines since President Donald Trump took office for its advocacy for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and undocumented students (DACA). Former President David Oxtoby, current President G. Gabrielle Starr, and former Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum have all been outspoken on the issue, positioning Pomona as a national leader.
This state of affairs is a far cry from the events of fall 2011, when Pomona made national headlines of the opposite type for its stance on immigration.
After an anonymous tip accused the college of illegal hiring practices, Oxtoby claimed he was legally obligated to require staff to provide proof of citizenship or residency status. When 17 workers were unable to provide such proof, they were fired.
The episode, which occurred at the same time as efforts by dining hall workers to unionize, still haunts the college today.
Pomona history professor Victor Silverman, who was involved in the faculty resistance to the documentation check, said that even though the incident happened several years ago, it has created “a reservoir of distrust” among the faculty towards the administration.
One of the fired workers recently spoke with TSL, and said he still feels betrayed.
Christian Torres worked as a cook in Frary Dining Hall for seven years, alongside his aunt and uncle, but Dec. 2, 2011, he found himself without a job.
“It really, really hurt me,” he said. “We gave everything to the kitchen to make sure the students had food everyday, and when we spoke up for something better, the documentation check came up.”
Torres went public about his firing and the betrayal he felt, and was quoted in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and TSL. Because of this publicity, Torres said, it was “really difficult to find a job because when I would go and apply, [the employer] would request my papers.”
Despite his feelings about the administration, Torres remembers Pomona students fondly.
“We worked hard for the students,” he said, “and they helped me with my English and thanks to them I was able to get my GED. They were like family.”
Before the documentation check, there had been many efforts by the dining hall workers to unionize, and some of the fired workers suspected the demand for valid documentation was a covert attempt to thwart the unionization efforts.
On campus, many students and faculty protested the documentation checks, arguing that the firings went against Pomona’s core values.
Workers, students, and faculty were “frustrated that the administration was resisting the unionization process,” Silverman said. “The community was becoming educated that there were real problems in the way the college was running the dining [halls] and how the workers were being treated.”
Benny Avina, a chef for Oldenborg dining hall, has worked at Pomona since 1985. Avina is an American citizen, so his job was not affected by the check.
“It hurt all of us a lot that this happened at Pomona because there were people that had been working here for 20 years, and they had to go because they did not have their papers,” he said in an interview with TSL translated from Spanish.
The documentation check also affected the way Avina viewed the college.
“I spent the birthdays of my children working because I didn’t want to miss work. I lost a lot of time with my kids,” he said. This lost time was especially upsetting “because I wasn’t working in the place that I thought I was working in.”
Avina said he cares deeply for Pomona students.
“All of the years that I’ve worked here, I’ve always been happy to work for the students,” he said. Every year, there are students who graduate and come back to see him, he added.
After DACA was established in 2012, the documentation regulations became less strict, and Pomona rehired two of the workers that it had fired, including Torres.
Torres eventually left Pomona and is now an activist for the pro-union organization UNITE-HERE, where he represents workers in corporate cafeterias at Loyola Marymount University and Los Angeles International Airport to help them earn better contracts and wages.
Torres was a leader in the Pomona workers’ efforts to unionize to obtain “better benefits that were secured in a contract and respect out of management, because for a long time, there was not a lot of respect” he said. “The college tried to take away some of those benefits, and back then we had no protection at all.”
The administration repeatedly denied that there was a link between the efforts to unionize and the request for workers’ documentation, but Torres and other former employees found the documentation check’s timing suspicious. Torres said that he had “worked there for seven years and never had an issue with documentation. It’s just so coincidental.”
Pomona spokesperson Mark Kendall, when reached for comment on the incident, directed TSL to a timeline on Pomona’s website, which states that investigation of the documentation check “found that the administration had done nothing wrong ” and that “legal constraints had left the College with no other options.”
But Silverman claims the documentation check was unnecessary from a legal standpoint.
The administration could have resisted and “could have said ‘We’re not going to do [the check] until we are forced to by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],’ but they were not willing to stand up for the rights of people that they had employed for decades,” he said.
The practice of initiating documentation checks in the middle of “a very contested union organization drive is a common thing,” Silverman added.
It was not until 2013, two years after the firings, that the workers were able to unionize.
The Pomona administration at first refused to remain neutral in the union elections, Silverman said, which “created an atmosphere of intimidation and pressure to convince workers not to join the union.”
Eventually, however, the administration agreed to remain somewhat neutral, because “it wasn’t worth the political trouble it was causing them anymore,” Silverman said.
Avina is also involved with UNITE-HERE, and helped Pomona’s remaining workers successfully unionize after the events of 2011.
“The process of unionizing was very difficult because Pomona is a place that does not like unions,” Avina said. “Maybe they thought that we were going to remain without power in the workplace [after firing the 17 workers].”
However, Avina said that things have changed significantly at Pomona since the 2011 controversy, and UNITE-HERE organizers have frequent meetings with administrators to collaborate to resolve concerns.
“Before it was uglier, but the administration has calmed down and now we can better serve the students,” he said. “Every day after [the successful creation of] the union, the environment at the college and the cafeteria feels better.”