Whittier College students seek sanctuary status

Nathan Acuña

Matthew Park

“Don’t be nervous,” said a tenured Whittier professor to a small group of six tense Whittier students last Friday. The students were preparing to present a petition to the College’s Board of Trustees, demanding they designate Whittier College a sanctuary campus. The petition, which started circulating across campus and online just two days before the meeting, has gathered over 700 signatures. 

The term “sanctuary” has a vague definition, and because of this, the petition lists demands by which Whittier will define its sanctuary status. One designation that DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and undocumented students have access to the same opportunities that any other student might have, including fellowships, study abroad, and financial aid. Additionally, it requests that “Whittier College faculty, staff, administration, as well as Campus Safety, not comply in information gathering, deportation raids or individual targeting, or intimidation with federal authorities.” 

The six students presenting the petition convened with the Enrollment and Student Life Board Committee to present the petition signatures as well as comments from Whittier College students, faculty, alumni, and community members. The meeting was arranged Tuesday afternoon after the same students met with Vice President Pérez. At this meeting, Pérez explained that the Board might find issue with the institution’s ability to financially support its DACA students should Trump’s administration target sanctuary schools by withdrawing government aid.

After personal testimonials from two DACA students, the meeting switch a presentation to a question-and-answer between the students and 11 board members.

One student, Junior Gaby Gil, testified as a DACA student through choked back tears. “I thought I was going to cry later on,” said Gil laughing before pushing through the rest of her speech. “This has meant a lot to me… I never thought I was going to go to college,” she admitted. “Whittier has offered me so much. I met some wonderful people, professors who have given me so much support that I personally don’t have at home. I am a proud Poet, and I feel like I contribute a lot and that I do have the skills to stay here and be safe and contribute again. This would mean a lot.” 

Various board members raised critical questions of the student representatives, who answered in suit. Some questions posed as suggestions for next steps, such as contacting similar private schools in Southern California, like Pitzer College, which has declared sanctuary status, and Whittier Law School. 

Whittier’s potential self-designation as a sanctuary campus is not an isolated choice. Since President Donald Trump’s election last November, colleges and universities across the nation have taken stances against potential deportation in defense of the DACA program. As recent as Feb. 24, Trump spoke quite negatively of immigrants. “Immigration officers are finding the gang members, the drug dealers, and the criminal aliens and throwing them the hell out of our country,” Trump said, “and we will not let them back in.” At the state level, the chancellor of all 23 campuses in the California University system has formally declared his defense of students without citizenship status. Locally, President Melvin Oliver declared Pitzer College, a school in Whittier College’s SCIAC league and one of the Claremont colleges, as a sanctuary campus.

One important question from the Chair of the committee Christopher Caldwell was asked whether declaring Whittier’s sanctuary status might put undocumented students at an even higher risk than they are currently. To this, DACA student senior Alma Corado said that her documentation status will not change, and that the risk is already there. To her, the designation of sanctuary is more important than the potential harm that might come to her.

Leaving the meeting, many of the students said that they felt positive about their presentation and were hopeful but alsoanxious for any news from the Board the next day. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, no news has been heard of the board’s decision. According to Dean Pérez, the board is still deliberating on their decision, and will release a statement after a decision is made.