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EWU trustees trying to calm students’ fears of deportation

EWU student Dulce Gutierrez Vasquez addresses the crowd on the Cheney, Wash., campus during a Unity Rally hosted by the Multicultural Coalition of Eastern Washington University. DAN PELLE danp@spokesman.com (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
EWU student Dulce Gutierrez Vasquez addresses the crowd on the Cheney, Wash., campus during a Unity Rally hosted by the Multicultural Coalition of Eastern Washington University. DAN PELLE danp@spokesman.com (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Eastern Washington University can’t block federal immigration authorities from conducting raids or deportations, but school administrators will take steps to promote cultural diversity on campus, the university’s board of trustees said during a public conference call Tuesday afternoon.

After the 20-minute discussion, the trustees issued a statement in response to a petition that circulated on campus last week. The petition, which garnered nearly 500 signatures, urged administrators to declare EWU a “sanctuary” for immigrants and minorities under President-elect Donald Trump, whose proposals and rhetoric have sparked fears among those groups.

A number of colleges have declared themselves sanctuary campuses, including Portland State University, Reed College and Wesleyan University. But the EWU trustees agreed the word “sanctuary” is too ambiguous, legally and otherwise.

“We assert that EWU is much more than this,” their statement reads. “EWU serves as a catalyst for change and a place of hope for our entire student body … It is a place that values civil discourse, respectful exchange of ideas, and learning.”

Among other demands, the petition urged administrators to “actively refuse to comply with immigration authorities regarding deportations or raids” and “refuse all voluntary information sharing” with federal immigration and border-protection agencies.

There are about 200 undocumented students at EWU, legally studying under an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in 2012. Trump has vowed to repeal that program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects roughly 750,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and have little connection to their countries of origin.

Many undocumented students fear the DACA database, which contains their personal information, will make them easy targets for deportation under Trump’s administration.

“There was just a point where students were just scared,” said Elisha Miranda, an EWU film professor who helped launch the petition. “They were grieving after the Trump election.”

One undocumented student, Dulce Gutierrez Vasquez, moved to the United States when she was 2. She said at a rally on campus last week, “I have nothing waiting for me in Mexico.”

The petition also says that Muslims, LGBT students and other minorities have felt increasingly persecuted in recent months.

The trustees said Tuesday that EWU must operate “within the limits of the law.”

“Enforcement of federal immigration law is within the discretion of the federal government,” the trustees’ statement reads. “Thus, the EWU Police Department does not question, detain or arrest individuals solely because they may lack documentation of legal status. Although we do not have the power to prohibit federal officers from entering our campus, we will do everything in our power to ensure they respect and support our mission to educate and transform the lives of all our students.”

The trustees also acknowledged a recent uptick in hate crimes and vandalism. Board Chairman James Murphy noted that offensive graffiti recently appeared on Spokane’s Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, and on a car belonging to a gay student at Washington State University. Additionally, a swastika and a message referencing Trump were spray-painted on a Mexican family’s home in the Logan Neighborhood.

“EWU remains a campus that has zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination, bullying or vandalism,” the statement reads. “We must all be vigilant in our efforts to create a safe and welcoming place for everyone.”

Miranda, the film professor, said she’s been “pleasantly surprised” with the response from administrators. EWU President Mary Cullinan spoke at last week’s rally, and during a meeting Friday, the trustees listened as more than two-dozen students and school employees voiced concerns.

EWU also plans to host at least three public forums, dubbed the “President’s Dialogues on Diversity,” between January and June next year.

“Now is not the time for armchair liberalism,” Miranda said. “Now is the time for action and to not be silent.”

Staff writer Eli Francovich contributed to this story.