Students Hold Sanctuary Campus Protest
Issue   |   Wed, 11/30/2016 - 00:37
Takudzwa Tapfuma '17
Around 300 students and members of the community walked out to Converse Hall on Nov. 16 at noon to protest President-elect Donald Trump's proposed policies regarding undocumented immigrants.

On Nov. 16 at noon, hundreds of students walked out of class to the steps of Converse Hall in a demonstration against President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to “deport all criminal aliens.” Intending to declare the college a sanctuary campus — where students “commit to putting our bodies between Trump and undocumented students” — students raised signs with words such as “No human being is illegal” and chanted, “No borders, no nations, stop deportation.”

Joined by some faculty and staff and surrounded by reporters, the crowd listened as Irma Zamora ’17 read Trump’s 100-day plan and Bryan Torres ’18 relayed his experience as an undocumented immigrant in America. After Torres spoke, Dean of New Students Rick Lopez, who was unaffiliated with the student organizers, talked briefly about acknowledging antagonism and bigotry in America.

“Do not give in,” Lopez said. “Support those among us who have the most to lose.” For students with loved ones and family who have undocumented status, he said, every day is a constant state of worry. “If they don’t answer the phone, what does that mean?” he said. “Are they deported?”

He urged students to press administration, to enforce more rules and ensure that “we’re working behind the scenes to provide a kind of support and protection.”

The focus of the letter of demands, which was read to the crowd, requested that the college refuse all “voluntary sharing of records, documents, and similar materials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) / U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)” and restrict ICE’s physical access to college-owned land. It demanded that the college continue to support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and enact its need-blind admission policy for undocumented and DACA students. The letter also asked for the college to prohibit campus police from inquiring about or documenting an individual’s immigration status, enforcing immigration laws or working with ICE, CBP or any other policing agency.

The last request was for the college to divest from private prisons and detention centers that incarcerate immigrants. “We, as a student body, will no longer permit our college to immorally profit from the imprisonment and detention of human bodies,” the letter said.

The letter ended with writers stating that they expected a public, written response to all demands by Monday, Nov. 28. The full letter was signed by over 300 members of the college community.

At the protest, student organizers presented the letter to President Biddy Martin, who was standing in the crowd.

“Our main goal was to have administration acknowledge and declare itself a sanctuary campus,” said Esperanza Chairez ’19, one of the organizers of the protest. “We want the school to make a promise to students regardless of the future.”

The Sanctuary Campus walkout at Amherst was a demonstration in line with the national movement, Movimiento Cosecha, which is described on its website as a nonviolent movement working to secure protection and respect for undocumented immigrants in America.

At more than 100 campuses across the nation, students have held protests, signed petitions and declared their school as “sanctuary campuses.”

Ana Ascencio ’18, another organizer, said a small group of students initially discussed taking action after the results of the presidential election and reached out to contacts at Movimiento Cosecha for resources on how to organize.

“There had been a lot of fears and anxieties about what it means to have Trump in office and what kind of power the executive branch holds,” Ascencio said. “We wanted to raise our voice in solidarity and felt that the movement needed to be brought to Amherst.”

Within a week, students organizers planned details for the walkout, secured speakers, made posters, drafted a letter of demands and publicized the event on social media.

Organizers had been uncertain of how many students would participate in the protest, but several hundred students and community members were in attendance at noon.

“To stand in the crowd and recognize faces, leading the chant and having all that energy come back to you — it was a moment of solidarity I felt I really needed,” Ascencio said.

Personal Consequences

Torres was only 12 years old when he made the 23-day journey from his birth country of El Salvador to Texas. His mother and older siblings were already living in America — now it was his turn. Traveling with no family or relatives and led only by guides, Torres alternated between taking the bus, walking and navigating strangers. “You don’t know when you’re going to eat or not,” he said. “Everyone was just trying to make it.”

When Torres was two years old, his mother came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant, leaving her family in the hopes of sending for her children after finding residence in America. His two older siblings soon joined her. In El Salvador, Torres said, violence had become an unavoidable issue. Young boys were often forced to join gangs, with gang members threatening to kill them otherwise.

Today, El Salvador is referred to as the murder capital of the world, with a homicide rate of approximately 116 homicides every 100,000 inhabitants according to El Salvador's Institute of Legal Medicine, and a number of authorities point to gang competition as one of the causes of such a high murder rate. “It’s a big problem,” Torres said. “Some of my friends are in jail because of it.”

After two earthquakes struck El Salvador in 2001 and killed more than 1,200 people, Torres’ mother as well as his siblings received Temporary Protection Status. Once Torres was deemed “old enough,” he made his journey alone.

The 23-day trip, Torres said, was “traumatizing.”

At one point, some of the people traveling with him got lost — nobody knew what happened to them. Language barriers proved to be obstacles, and it was a constant state of moving from place to place. Thankfully, Torres said, “we did make it.”

“I didn’t know I was doing something that could be considered illegal,” Torres said. “I thought it was normal — just kept going.”

At last, he crossed into Texas — one state closer to reunion with his family—and was caught by immigration officials. “They treated me like some type of criminal,” he said. He was placed in a cell for about two days but ultimately released since he was underage. His mother was contacted, and Torres left with her for Northampton, where she was residing.

Because he had been identified as undocumented, Torres was summoned to court every eight to 12 months after arriving in Northampton. The court orders continued for 6½ years. He was just a teen, having to find a lawyer and argue for his right to remain with his family. “I constantly felt the fear of being sent out of the country even though my family is all here,” he said.

Adjusting to America, Torres said, was also difficult. “I didn’t speak English at all,” he said. “I was placed in the seventh grade, and there were only two to three other people who spoke Spanish.”

He was forced to quickly get used to the “way things work in the U.S.” And all throughout middle and high school, nobody knew about his status as an undocumented immigrant. It was only after President Barack Obama issued an executive order for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that Torres finally felt his fear of deportation ease.

Now, that fear has returned.

“People are more open to discriminating against undocumented immigrants like me now that Trump has been elected,” he said at a student-held walkout on Nov. 16.

According to Torres, a group of alumni who were visiting during Homecoming weekend had told him to get out of the country.

“I want the administration to be mindful of experiences like this,” he said during the walkout to the crowd. “We need to ensure support networks for undocumented students on campus.”

Though Torres said in a later interview that it “was not easy for me to talk about my experience,” no one else was going to speak about it.

“People don’t understand what it’s like to live as an immigrant,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of us at Amherst — there’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ kind of policy. But it’s important for people to hear about this because if they don’t hear about it, they won’t know about something that’s happening across the country.”

The crowd of people who joined him at the walkout gave him hope.

“I loved that,” he said. “It made me feel I wasn’t alone in this movement.”

Chairez, who identifies as a woman of color from an immigrant background, said that under the Obama administration, more undocumented immigrants have been deported than ever before. Trump’s approval of the stop-and-frisk policy, she said, furthers the sense of uncertainty and feeling of division in the country.

“I understand Trump’s appeal to working-class Americans, but if his policies help them by kicking out those who have made their lives in America, that doesn’t consider the humanity of those people,” she said.

Being part of the protest and seeing all the student support also impacted Zamora, for whom “we don’t have papers” is a familiar phrase.

“Everyone in family except my cousins, my sister and me are undocumented,” she said. “Every day is living in limbo.”

After it was announced that Trump had been elected, Zamora said she felt powerless. “The fact that my mom can be taken away,” she said. “I have no control.”

Zamora’s mother grew up in one of the poorest parts of Mexico, Zamora said. There was “no economic opportunity, especially for a woman who hadn’t finished high school.”

Her mother, as the third oldest sibling, needed to provide for her younger siblings so they could finish school. For this reason, she chose to come to the U.S.

Zamora’s father was placed in a similar situation. He had been married previously with children before meeting Zamora’s mother, and at the time his own mother was very sick.

“For him, it was, ‘I need to take care of my children and pay medical bills,’” Zamora said. Because of his decision to come to the U.S., Zamora’s older half-sister was able to finish technical school two years ago in Mexico.

Immigration is not the first choice for hundreds of people, Ascencio said. “There’s this idea that people immigrate by choice and exclusively for economic reasons,” she said. “But the reality is that a lot of people migrate because the economic, political and social conditions in their native countries are unfit for making a life.”

What Americans don’t often realize, Ascencio said, is that the U.S. “has had a hand in causing that immigration and those conditions.”

For Torres, this is the case. El Salvador’s civil war, he said, was funded by the U.S. — then-President Jimmy Carter chose to provide military aid to the Salvadoran regime against insurgents. “These are the long-term consequences of a war supported by the U.S.,” he said. “People fleeing their countries, especially children.”

Another misconception of undocumented immigrants is that they “take away our jobs or they drain our economy,” said Zamora.

“It really bothers me when people say that,” she said. “My parents pay taxes, they follow laws, but they don’t get the benefits of health care or social security. They take part in being citizens — they’re just not documented.”

“Being the child of undocumented immigrants, I see how that community is voiceless,” she said. “We need to use this tool — citizenship — to give them a voice.”

She is not afraid, Zamora says. She is doing this for her parents.

The System

For many, Zamora said, it is often easy to tell an undocumented immigrant just to come to America legally. Applying for a visa, however, can take years and money, Zamora said.

“A lot of my family are trying to legally become citizens, but people don’t realize how expensive it is to afford a visa to come here,” she said. “There’s a lot of discrimination even if you get it. People at the American embassy in Mexico can turn you away if you look too dirty or too poor or look a certain way. It’s a problem with the legal system.”

Even DACA students continue to face a certain level of threat to their security, Torres said. DACA students need to apply for advanced parole, or travel documents, if they want to go abroad. They need a permit to come back into the country — a permit the government “can deny if they want to.” For Torres, who studied abroad, this process increased uncertainty about returning.

That element of fear, of not knowing if one day you will be taken from your family and all that is familiar, caused Torres to develop anxiety and panic attacks while growing up.

“You never know what can happen to you,” he said.

Zamora, too, constantly felt apprehension as a child. One time, she was with her mother late at night when they were stopped by a police officer. The officer said she had ran a stop sign.

“My first thought was, ‘They’re going to take away my mom,’” Zamora said.

Zamora’s mother, who spoke English with an accent, tried to explain that she was working — delivering newspapers — “but he kept saying, ‘I don’t understand, what are you saying?’” Zamora recalled.

As the tension increased, Zamora — then just 12 years old — was forced to step in. “I had to translate,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘Please, my mom’s just delivering newspapers. She’s just doing her job.’”

Today, Zamora says she still flinches whenever she sees police.

Administrative Response

On Sunday, Nov. 20, Martin addressed the protest in an email to the college community, recognizing the walkout and writing, “We will do everything we can within the limits of the law to support them and fulfill our promise of educational opportunity.”

Recognizing undocumented and DACA students as among the intellectually talented individuals at the college, Martin said that “ensuring their access to an excellent education is vital to Amherst’s mission and values.”

Martin iterated that the college has long respected students’ rights to privacy and does not share student records with immigration agencies. She promised to work with legal experts to examine additional measures for protecting students.

“There will be additional opportunities for discussion, education and advice on campus,” she wrote. “I have added my name to the list of presidents advocating for the continuation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, whose purpose is to offer a measure of official documented status (though not a path to citizenship) to people brought to this country as children.”

In a separate email interview, Martin acknowledged the “painful degree of uncertainty on the issues raised by the protest.” It is a fundamental right and necessity, she said, that people make their voices heard when policy proposals “threaten fundamental principles of democracy and humanity.”

Standing amid students at the protest, Martin said in the interview that she felt “appreciation for the attention brought to the issues, a sense of shared purpose and eagerness to get to work.”

Martin said that the college had already began to gather resources before the rally, and she hopes to speak further with students on how to proceed.

“The letter and the list brought forward by the protesters helped by showing a strong commitment to the issues, bringing attention to the impact of possible changes to immigration law and enforcement, supporting a larger national effort and articulating priorities for Amherst,” she said.

In general, however, Martin said she does not consider demands and timelines to be the most effective way of opening dialogue and tends not to strictly adhere to terms set like deadlines. Instead, she said she believes in responding to the “substance of the matter” and working with the community to act comprehensively.

Martin said she has already worked with the college’s chief investment officer and chief financial officer to establish that Amherst has no direct or indirect investments in prisons or detention centers. “We will continue consulting with other institutions and with legal experts, including a number of alumni who have offered their help, to see what more we can do,” she said.

A more detailed response addressing each point in the students’ letter was published on the college website on Monday, Nov. 28.

“There’s a definite recognition in terms of what Amherst College is doing and that what’s going to come out of it is more support legally,” Ascencio said about Martin’s response.

Torres also praised the college’s decision to open a workshop with an immigration attorney. “We aren’t visible at all on campus,” he said. “People need to get more educated about it.”

While Chairez appreciated Martin’s message, she took issue with Martin’s promise to act “within the limits of the law.” If Trump’s administration changes the law to target undocumented students, “it’ll be a hollow statement,” she said.

Looking to the Future

According to Ascencio, organizers are continuing to talk about what they can do and hope to hold workshops about “knowing your rights” for DACA students, non-DACA students and allies alike. Movimiento Cosecha is planning another sanctuary campus movement on Dec. 1, which could become another day of demonstration at the college.

Yesterday, the Office of Student Affairs hosted immigration attorney Dan Berger to discuss immigration questions post-election and provide information on what Trump can and cannot change.

Members of the Five College community are holding a workshop titled “Immigration Students: Know Your Rights” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst tonight from 6-8 p.m. The Office of Student Affairs and the Office of the Dean of Faculty are also hosting a larger teach-in about immigration law and policy on Friday, Dec. 2 from 1-3 p.m. in Converse Hall.

For Chairez, the administration’s response is not as important as continuing student resistance. “Seeing that capacity to come together and form a coalition of students to address policies that we think are unfair, that’s what matters,” she said.

Legitimate fear exists, Chairez said. For undocumented students, Chairez said, it is a fear that you will be deported, that people have your address — that you will be sent to a place where you don’t know anything or anyone.

“I hope that people can empathize with the students on campus who have that fear,” Chairez said.

Zamora said dialogue needs to continue and that the next big step from the administration should include hiring a specific staff member to work with undocumented students. “It’s rough figuring out how to navigate a world post-Amherst,” she said.
“A liaison between centers is my biggest hope.”

For Torres, the community at the college has been an emotional support, he said. “Everything that has happened has given me the power to talk about it,” he said, adding that he has continued to speak about his experience despite its difficult nature and his anxiety regarding public speaking.

The president-elect has said “hateful things,” Torres said, but he asks that people hear out each other’s different life experiences instead of “judging a person based on assumptions.”

Ultimately, even if this issue doesn’t affect a specific person, Torres said, it affects many others. “Put yourself in others’ shoes,” he said. “Before you discriminate against someone, think about the background of the person and why the did what they did — your life is completely different. But if you put yourself in someone’s shoes, I think you’ll understand more what it’s like.”