VC must redouble commitment to undocumented students

Last week in their newsletter, the Career Development Office (CDO) advertised a webinar for Women in Law Enforcement that promoted the services of the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Several students expressed discomfort and acted quickly to have this listing removed from the CDO newsletter and a public apology issued to the campus community. Students Nicole Gonzalez ’19 and Emily Rosenzweig ’18 reached out to President Bradley via email, expressing their concern by writing, “The posting of this webinar has made many students at Vassar, particularly those who are at risk of deportation, feel unsafe on their own campus. Especially in this tumultuous political climate, Vassar should ensure that every student feels safe here.” A representative from the CDO has since issued an apology and agreed to remove the listing from the newsletter, also stating the Office’s commitment to better discretion in the future. While the administration responded and took measures to address students’ concerns, this incident still raises several larger questions about the status of undocumented students here at Vassar.

ICE, a federal law enforcement agency under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has been widely criticized for its arrest methods, treatment of detainees and detention center conditions. Their policies have been responsible for the trauma and separation of countless families throughout the nation. ICE has become increasingly infamous for targeting individuals who pose no threat to society. Last year, they were responsible for conducting raids in which half of the detainees had no minor or criminal offenses (Business Insider, “Half the undocumented immigrants rounded up in February raids had no criminal records or minor offenses,” 05.01.2017).

Given ICE’s reputation for filling communities with terror, this matter calls into question the ethics of government institutions having a presence at private colleges and universities. The webinar advertised was part of an initiative led by the Homeland Security Office of Academic Engagement. This organization states that its goal is to work with schools nationwide to promote the department’s core mission and that it is actively reaching out to engage with students who may be interested in the field (Homeland Security website, “Overview”). Although colleges that receive federal funding are obligated to allow military and Department of Homeland Security recruitment on their campuses, students across the nation have demonstrated that they feel unsafe having this intrusive presence on campus. Last year at New York University, students organized to protest the inclusion of ICE recruiters at a law school job fair, demonstrating that ICE and Homeland Security recruitment is not isolated to this incident at Vassar (NYU Local, “NYU Students protest the inclusion of ICE Recruiters at Law School Job Fair,” 02.02.2017). While the event advertised by the CDO was a webinar and thus did not physically bring recruiters to the College, the sentiment—and thus the possibility of making students feel unsafe on their own campus—remains.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize how the advertised webinar attempted to use identity politics as a way to attract a certain demographic of students. This event was branded as a way to empower feminist college women. However, there is nothing inherently progressive about promoting women in law enforcement at the expense of undocumented people of color. While it may seem commendable to promote women entering fields where they are currently the minority, it is important to remember that it is neither progressive nor revolutionary if it is not accessible to all women. Moreover, it is important to realize that by beckoning minorities to careers and industries that have historically ostracized them, such as law enforcement, these institutions are not being groundbreaking. Instead, the system is doing what it must to minimize reproach (BlaQueerFlow, “Revisited: Why letting transgender folks serve in the military isn’t progressive or radical,” 07.26.2017).

Vassar has publicly declared its support for undocumented students: Former Interim President Jonathan Chenette released a statement on Dec. 9, 2016 confirming that the College would take steps to protect undocumented or DACA students on campus (Vassar Info, “Statement Supporting DACA and Undocumented Students,” 12.09.2016). In addition, according to a CDO representative, Vassar submitted an amicus brief in support of DACA students to the New York State Appellate Division and to the US Supreme Court and has also arranged to provide legal support as needed. While Vassar has advocated for legislative protection of its undocumented students, this action must also be extended to further interpersonal and structural support of students on campus. This begins with taking proactive steps to ensure undocumented students’ success once they are at Vassar. This process requires that we review our admissions policies and ensure that undocumented students are not barred from applying by certain questions on the application or any other unnecessary red tape. This process continues with making sure that once they are here, undocumented students have access to the financial and legal resources they may need to ensure a successful route to graduation. Although a petition went out to declare Vassar a sanctuary campus Nov. 20, 2016, we remain officially undeclared as one. Moreover, simply signing a petition is not enough; those of us who are documented, especially, must redouble our efforts to attain justice for our peers through concrete action and activism. This also means having a clear policy and plan of action in the case that ICE officers show up physically on our campus, and circulating information to students on how to stay safe in the event of an ICE visit. Vassar could follow the lead, for example, of the University of California, Berkeley, which shares a poster on the website of its Undocumented Student Program explaining students’ rights and where they can report an unexpected ICE visit (University of California, Berkeley, “What to do if ICE comes to your door.”)

ICE is the most immediate threat to undocumented students’ safety and well-being, and Vassar appears to be unprepared for a situation in which ICE does show up to Vassar. Would community members be notified through our crisis alert system? What would our rights be in this situation? What can we, as individuals and as a student body, do to protect our undocumented peers? Students and staff should be aware of what to do and where to go. The College has taken steps in this direction: According to a representative, the CDO coordinated a lecture in Feb. 2017 by Peter L. Markowitz, a legal expert on immigration enforcement issues and on local, state and national policy innovation. The clinic aimed to provide deportation defense representation to individuals and represent community-based and national advocacy organizations on impact projects, and it was attended by more than 200 people. The administration must continue to make strides in this regard, which could take the form of planning more lectures and visits, disseminating information on rights and advice for undocumented and DACA students via emails or postings or even mandating informational seminars for first-years during Orientation and peer leaders during House Team trainings.

As the conversation around immigration becomes increasingly turbulent and violent, Vassar must rise to the challenge of ensuring systemic support and accessibility for those we have sworn to protect. We, as a whole institution, must reevaluate our structures and policies to guarantee that we are both an attainable institution for undocumented students as well as one within which undocumented students can thrive. We urge the College to take administrative steps to make undocumented students and students with undocumented family members feel safe.

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