Protesters call for immigrant safe haven at Amherst College


  • Amherst College students during a protest against the immigration policies proposed by president-elect Donald Trump. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lynnette Arnold signs a sheet of paper stating demands on Boone Shear’s back during a University of Massachusetts student-organized walk-out protesting the immigration policies proposed by president-elect Donald Trump. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

AMHERST — Nearly 2,000 University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst College and Mount Holyoke College students rallied Wednesday in a move to urge college administrators to protect undocumented immigrants under the presidency of Donald Trump.

The three local demonstrations were part of the national #SanctuaryCampus walkout movement, in which community members at some 100 institutions gathered Wednesday for demonstrations. The demonstrators are demanding that their colleges adopt policies similar to those of sanctuary cities, places like Northampton and Amherst where local police refuse to cooperate with federal officials to deport undocumented immigrants who have otherwise not committed a crime.

Meantime, 500 Smith College community members have signed a letter asking that administrators make the college a “sanctuary center of higher education.”

Wednesday’s actions continue days of demonstrations that have broken out at cities and college and high school campuses following Trump’s election victory last week. The Republican has pledged to deport those who are here illegally.

“Those threats imminently affect millions of families and we demand that UMass take a position to support undocumented students, faculty and staff,” Aurora Santiago-Ortiz said at the rally. “These deportations rip the fabric of homes and families.”

The social justice education doctoral student was speaking at the start of the UMass rally, where 800 gathered at the Student Union. The group continued their action marching through campus – chanting “Trump says go back, we say fight back” – stopping in front of the Old Chapel to rally again before quietly entering the Whitmore administration building to deliver 600 signed copies of a demand letter to the office of Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy.

The letter demands that UMass commit to protecting undocumented, refugee and international community members; reject any collaboration with federal immigration authorities; hold public forums to engage those constituencies; and to release a statement by Friday afternoon laying out a plan to achieve those steps.

“This cannot be the final step,” organizer Santiago Vidales said as demonstrators exited Whitmore. “We have to be back Friday at 3 p.m.”

At Amherst College’s rally, demonstrators hand-delivered their demand letter to President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin.

About 600 – equivalent to a third of the student body – gathered outside Converse Hall at noon, chanting “the people united will never be divided,” while immigrant students and their allies shared thoughts and stories.

The hour-long action culminated when a small group of students entered Converse Hall in search of an administrator to whom they could deliver a demand letter. All the offices were locked, so one protestor called out in the crowd for a college official who would accept the letter.

Martin stepped forward.

The letter calls for a public written policy in which the college pledges to refuse voluntary sharing of records with federal immigration officials, refuse federal immigration agencies physical access to the Amherst campus, prohibit Amherst College Police Department from inquiring about an individual’s immigration status, continue its need-blind admissions policy for admitted students regardless of their immigration status and remove the “alien status” section in the college database for students.

The demonstrators demand that officials respond their requests by Nov. 28.

Personal stories

Among the speakers at the Amherst rally was Bryan Torres, a junior student who migrated from El Salvador to the U.S. when he was 12. Torres went through interrogations and a deportation trial but had found a brief sense of security under President Barack Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily implemented protections for undocumented immigrants who arrived during childhood.

Since the election of Trump, Torres said he’s grown worried about his future livelihood in the U.S. and has already had to endure harassment from those with anti-immigration sentiments, including an Amherst College alum he encountered during homecoming weekend.

“He said ‘Go Back to your country, you’re a Mexican,’” Torres recalled at the rally. “‘Get out of my country, beaner.’”

The incident resulted in an unfavorable interaction with Amherst College police, Torres said.

Amherst and Northampton each have policies on the books instructing their police departments not to honor detainer requests from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and thus are considered sanctuary cities.

Those requests can instruct federal, state and local law enforcement officials to hold someone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant for an additional 48 hours after they would normally be released, to allow ICE to take custody of that person.

Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone on Wednesday said since the policy was inacted in 2011, his departement has not recieved any detainer requests.

Department of Homeland Security Press Secretary Gillian Christensen said existing ICE and Customs and Border Protection policies guide enforcement at “sensitive locations,” which include colleges and universities.

“The ICE and CBP sensitive locations policies, which remain in effect, provide that enforcement actions at sensitive locations should generally be avoided, and require either prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or exigent circumstances necessitating immediate action,” Christensen said by email. “DHS is committed to ensuring that people seeking to participate in activities or utilize services provided at any sensitive location are free to do so without fear or hesitation.”

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said that administrators welcomed the sentiments expressed in the petition. He said officials continue to strive to create a safe and welcoming environment for all students, regardless of immigration status.

“The protections being called for in the petition are, in large part, already in place and the UMass Amherst administration is fully committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of all of our students – including immigrant students, foreign students and those who are most vulnerable in these trying times,” he wrote in an email. “The Chancellor’s Office will be reviewing the petition so we can respond in further detail.”

Student Trustee Joshua Odam said that in speaking to UMass system President Martin T. Meehan earlier, he and the other trustees seemed “accepting of the idea” of a sanctuary campus. But Odam said that’s not enough.

“We need an unoquivocal statement,” he said. “We need to make sure the entire university becomes a sanctuary system.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com