Protecting CUNY’s immigrants
As Sangeeta Bishop, chair of the department of social sciences, human services and criminal justice at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) recalls, the faculty, staff and student organizing around making the campus a “sanctuary campus” for undocumented immigrants was almost immediate after election day.
“We drew up a petition. Overnight we had about 180 signatures from our faculty and staff, and we had an open forum for students within a couple of days of the election,” she said, noting that both BMCC President Antonio Pérez and Provost Karrin Wilks attended the forum. “There’s awareness. We do have some kind of activity in the sense that the administration is interested in providing some legal support services for undocumented students so that students can get ideas and find out about their rights. That’s something BMCC is providing.”
All across the country, immigration activists have been scrambling since the election of Donald Trump, who has promised that his administration will be tough on undocumented immigrants. It has raised fears that federal authorities could conduct massive raids, with the cooperation of university officials, even in places as liberal and welcoming to immigrants as New York City. CUNY faculty, staff and students have been organizing city-wide to ensure that both campus administrations and the central CUNY administration do everything in their power to protect this potentially vulnerable population at CUNY.
Trump’s campaign and victory has sparked deep fear for immigrant communities across the country – everything from his plan to build a wall with Mexico to calling immigrants rapists to his immigration ban for people from certain Muslim countries has proven that the anti-immigration rhetoric of this administration is unmatched by any Republican national campaign in recent memory. Even if Trump’s most draconian proposals do not come to fruition, hundreds of hate crimes have already been committed around the country since Trump’s election, including several in New York City against CUNY students. CUNY immigration advocates take these threats extremely seriously and have begun to organize accordingly.
This has led coalitions at several campuses to pressure their administrations to declare their colleges sanctuary campuses, where administrations pledge not to cooperate with federal attempts to locate and detain undocumented immigrants on campus.
Thanks to organizing by the PSC and fellow activists, several campus meetings on the issue have already taken place and CUNY Central administration has initiated concrete steps toward protecting immigrants – although more needs to be done, advocates said.
At the heart of the matter is the 2012 Obama administration policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which prevents deportation of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. Advocates fear that a Trump administration could scrap the program, potentially putting thousands of immigrant students on CUNY campuses at risk.
Arianna Martinez, a LaGuardia Community College associate professor of social science, said that students and faculty circulated a petition last November calling on the administration to declare LaGuardia a sanctuary campus, and that by the time the newly formed coalition held a December 1 rally, it had collected 300 faculty signatures and 300 student signatures.
Faculty and students delivered the petition to LaGuardia President Gail Mellow at the rally, Martinez said, and Mellow met with the three faculty members and half dozen students about their demands. In the meeting, the president agreed to set up an ad hoc committee of staff, faculty, students and administrators to address immigrant students’ concerns under a Trump administration.
“It was really powerful and heartfelt and people were there crying and more than a few students were thanking us for giving them the opportunity to speak,” Martinez said, describing the mood at the rally. “I think there’s a lot of untapped potential in terms of students becoming organizers and finding their political voices.”
PSC members city-wide have said that the campus organizing has been one encouraging sign in a seemingly bleak political moment.
“As discouraging as Trump’s victory has been, it has been amazing to watch the spontaneous resistance in the Kingsborough community it has produced as students, faculty, staff and alumni emerge from the shadows and come together in a remarkable display of civic engagement and participatory democracy,” wrote Dominic Wetzel in an email to Clarion. Wetzel teaches in the behavioral sciences and human sciences department at Kingsborough Community College. “I’m still amazed by the budding student activists who gathered over a thousand signatures in a few days, working the student body as only students can – canvassing the cafeteria and breezeway – gathering 350 signatures in one day alone.”
He continued, “In my four years at Kingsborough, I’ve never seen anything that has evoked this kind of spontaneous, emotional and political response. It’s a good sign. The delivery of over 1,400 signatures to Kingsborough President [Farley Herzek] on December 7 was an intense and emotional experience, as over 150 students, faculty, staff and alumni packed a security-heavy cafeteria staff/faculty lounge pleading and demanding the president use all the weapons in his power to protect the most vulnerable among us.”
LOTS OF PROTESTS
Pro-sanctuary campus protests have taken place at several other campuses, including a December 12 demonstration at John Jay College where students and PSC members formed a human chain around the main building, and a December 8 march from the Graduate Center to CUNY Central offices where several students discussed the idea with CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken.
“I’ve really never seen so much organizing on campus,” said New York City College of Technology assistant professor of health and human services Mery Diaz. “Our human services students were trying to figure out what could be done, so I have been participating in different demonstrations, just trying not to normalize the [anti-immigrant] rhetoric.”
Since Election Day, several college administrations made promises that it would keep immigrants safe on campus. Governor Andrew Cuomo sent out a statement that specifically defined the state’s intention to defend immigrants, and CUNY campus presidents signed onto sanctuary campus support documents.
In a letter dated December 2 to Chancellor James B. Milliken and the CUNY Board of Trustees Chairperson William C. Thompson, PSC President Barbara Bowen called for other measures, including having the administration condemn acts of bigotry on campus, forbid CUNY security officers from working with federal immigration agents, pledge to prevent unlawful surveillance and provide more resources for immigrants on campus.
“The PSC may call on you to deepen the meaning of ‘sanctuary’ and, if necessary, to take stronger measures to protect students, staff and faculty,” she said. “There is no time to waste. The actions you take now will define what CUNY stands for at this time and for many years to come.”
In response, Milliken, on December 14, put forth the following several-point University-wide policy in response to mounting pressure from students and faculty:
- “CUNY will take no action to assist in the enforcement of the immigration laws except as required by law.”
- “CUNY will protect student record information in compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.”
- “CUNY will not turn over student information to immigration enforcement authorities except pursuant to court order.”
- “CUNY will not request or gather information about students’ citizenship or immigration status in the course of providing educational or other services or in connection with public safety activities except as required in connection with tuition or financial aid eligibility.”
- “CUNY will not permit immigration enforcement officials to enter its campuses except to the extent required by a warrant or court order.”
- “CUNY will work with city, state and federal leaders in support of immigration reforms that maximize, not diminish, educational opportunities for all students.”
Political leaders from around the city praised Milliken’s statement, however, many PSC members believed much more needs to be done in the coming weeks and months.
“I think it needs to go much farther,” Bishop said. “There’s stop-and-frisk, there’s harassment, there’s discrimination. Yes, we need to concentrate on the undocumented, but we have all these other issues too. It’s great to make a public statement, but what will you actually do? I’m not sure. We need a dialogue, we need a strategy, we need more conversation.”