Whittier College commits to Sanctuary Campus protections

Nathan Acuña

Just before Spring Break, on Wednesday, March 8th, Whittier College’s Board of Trustees issued a statement to the college community announcing a policy that will effectively provide sanctuary for its undocumented students. The policy will go into effect immediately, and while some training has begun, additional training is scheduled for the coming months, according to Vice Presdient and Dean of Students Joel Pérez.

The Poet Student Sanctuary Protections Policy is the Board’s response to the “possible negative impact on students who are undocumented, who attend college under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, or who have family members” who may be affected by President Donald Trump’s proposed changes to immigration policy. This declaration follows the many other colleges and institutions who have declared themselves sanctuary campuses or announced protections for their DACA students (a list of these colleges, compiled by Pomona first-year transfer Xavier Maciel, can be found here). 

Although of sanctuary is not a legal designation, the idea of a sanctuary campus comes from the designation of sanctuary cities, who are those who have publicly declared to not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As it stands, the policy guarantees a number of protective measures to undocumented students, and particularly those who are a part of the 750,000 people allowed to work and live in the U.S. under the DACA program, established in 2012 by former President Barack Obama. These protective measures include continuing to allow DACA students equal access to the College’s educational and financial resources, and pledging to not knowingly assist federal officials in the targeting of undocumented students to the fullest extent of the law.

Although the Board did not explicitly declare Whittier College a sanctuary campus, many of these measures mirror similar policies in place at other sanctuary campuses. For instance, the California State University system, a collection of 23 Universities throughout the state, will not enter into agreements with federal officials, honor immigration hold requests, and/or detain, question, or arrest individuals even on the assumption of undocumentation. Pitzer College, a Southern California liberal arts college that is a part of the Claremont Colleges system, also pledges to uphold DACA students’ access to financial aid and to increase their commitment to developing campus programs for undocumented students.

According to many administrators and Board members themselves, the idea of publicizing Whittier College as a “sanctuary campus” had been debated on the Board’s table since last November. In February, students of Assistant Professor of English Michelle Chihara and Associate Professor of History José Orozco’s paired course, US/Mexico Border Studies and Chicano/a Literature, started that conversation at the grassroots level of the campus. Led by DACA students, a number of the paired course students met with various members of administration, including President Sharon Herzberger, Vice President Pérez, and more than a dozen members of the Board throughout the month of February. 

Other students circulated a petition to name Whittier College a sanctuary school on campus and online. The petition collectively gained approximately 700 signatures within three days, and received positive feedback from students, alumni, faculty, and community members. It was presented to members of the Board just before they convened their Winter session on Feb. 28, in which the policy was created and approved. 

Sophomore and DACA student Alma Corado has emphasized throughout this movement the necessity to publicly call Whittier a sanctuary campus. “I know it’s something simple — it’s just a word — but it goes beyond that,” Corado said. “It creates that sentiment throughout the campus that this space, this right here, I’m okay. I’m okay to be here and I don’t have to fear certain things I might have to fear back home.”

The policy reflects a continuation of the College’s increasing post-election commitment to the safety of its undocumented students. Back in November, President Herzberger signed a commitment to uphold and continue DACA, along with over 420 other colleges and universities around the country. 

This pledge acted as a response to President Trump’s campaign pledge to terminate the DACA program. Although an executive order has been drafted to end the program, he has yet to do so, leaving many unsure of what could happen in the coming weeks and months. “I know it’s a really tumultuous time, and there’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Dean Pérez in a Friday meeting with DACA and supporting students, which followed a deportation sweep announcement from the Department of Homeland Security.

In February, following a flurry of national and local ICE raids, the College issued another statement of support addressed to the institution’s DACA students. However, Whittier’s Board of Trustees would not yet declare itself a “sanctuary,” because “at the moment, there [was] no consensus and no official definition detailing what constitutes a ‘sanctuary’ campus.”

Following the announcement of Whittier’s Poet Student Sanctuary Protection Policy, many faculty members said that they were proud of the institution and the Board, while others recognized the work of activist-students in the past few months as a tremendous undertaking. “This is my thirty-third year here, and I feel like it’s one of the better things the Board has done in a long time,” said Professor of English Charles Adams.

Professors Chihara and Orozco, who provided space for students to initiate, plan, and carry out Whittier’s sanctuary movement, both expressed similar sentiments of the institution and its students. “I’m happy that the hard work and activism of Whittier College students moved the Board of Trustees and the President to commit Whittier to being a Sanctuary School,” said Orozco. 

Chihara concurred with this statement. “I think we just have to build on this and think about the larger communities we are a part of, because this is so much bigger than Whittier College,” said Chihara.

Meanwhile, the DACA students who led the movement acknowledge the policy as a big victory for themselves and the College, but they’re firm in their belief that there is still work to be done. “Now I’m excited for the things we can do next,” said junior and DACA student Gaby Gil. 

Gil, alongside fellow DACA students sophomore Cristian Alcantara and Corado, all hope that now that the College has pledged more support to its DACA students, it will invest more resources into the department which supports them the most—the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI). 

Formerly known as the Cultural Center, the OEI is located in a small, two-roomed corner within the Leadership Experience and Programs (LEAP) office. It is the College’s go-to resource for any and all underrepresented campus populations, including racial-ethnic minorities, religious minorities, LGBTQ+ students, and undocumented students. While other schools, (such as many in the California State University and University of California systems,) have centers that specifically attend to the educational needs of undocumented students (sometimes called UndocuCenters), Whittier College has one small center for all of its students’ minority identities.

One potential solution to this problem lies within the policy itself. It concludes with the establishment of a pool from the Office of the President fund to “provide financial resources for the efforts outlined in this Poet Student Sanctuary Protections Policy.” The policy also identifies the OEI as the “primary resource for assisting members of the Whittier College community who have undocumented and DACA immigration status.” It continues, “the OEI is directed to continue to disseminate to the campus community information concerning resources and forms of support, to enable all members to be excellent stewards of our students.” However, as Gil and Corado recognize, it might be particularly difficult for members of the OEI to be excellent stewards when the office only has two newly appointed staff: Director Jenny Guerra and Assistant Director Kayla Kosaki.  

As Whittier’s DACA students, their fight for more DACA assistance on campus begins with the OEI. “I think more resources are important,” Corado said. “and I don’t know how we would go about doing that, but we at least need to start the process or start the conversation and bring that on campus.”