PULLMAN – Undocumented students stood in the middle of campus Thursday, told their stories and appealed to Washington State University’s leaders to make the school a safe place for them.
More than 50 students and supporters gathered on the steps in front of WSU’s Todd Hall as part of a nationwide walkout to demand colleges and universities be designated “sanctuary campuses,” havens for immigrant students who lack permanent paperwork.
Whether WSU will do so is not yet clear.
“We are continuing to meet with students and have those conversations,” said Melynda Huskey, dean of students and interim vice president for student affairs. “This is an evolving environment for all of us. We don’t necessarily have a clear notion of what’s coming in terms of policy changes, any of us.”
Students who addressed the crowd said they have felt uncertain, even unsafe, following statements made by President-elect Donald Trump during his campaign.
On a sunny but windy afternoon, with temperatures in the high 30s, the group marched from the campus mall to the French Administration Building, chanting in unison.
“Education, not deportation.”
“Undocumented. Unapologetic. Unafraid.”
“Show me what America looks like. We are what America looks like.”
About a dozen of the students entered the administration building, delivering letters for WSU President Kirk Schulz describing their circumstances and imploring him to make the sanctuary campus designation.
Schulz was not present, but Huskey accepted the letters from each student.
Members of the Crimson Group, an organization for undocumented students and allies, planned the rally after drafting a petition to administrators last month.
The petition calls for WSU’s leaders to adopt a resolution banning immigration enforcement officials from the campus and blocking immigration officials from student information without explicit consent from the student.
Crimson Group leader Keyla Palominos, a sophomore, said a letter issued by the university in response to the petition fell short of the group’s expectations.
“It’s more words than action,” Palominos said. “They used the word ‘practice’ and not ‘policy.’ Actually declaring the WSU campus a sanctuary is what we want.”
The letter, signed by Schulz, Provost Dan Bernardo and Huskey, indicates “no policies, procedures, or practices have changed for our undocumented students.”
“The WSU Police Department does not, as a matter of practice, ask about immigration status when contacting individuals,” according to the letter. “WSU does not, as a matter of practice, provide student information to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) unless required by subpoena, law, or with a student’s permission.”
Huskey, who is scheduled to sit down with the Crimson Group next week for further discussion, described sanctuary as “a powerfully symbolic, but not entirely clear, designation.”
“Our ongoing concern is the same as it has always been,” she said. “We want our students to be safe and successful, so we’re going to keep working on that. We are thinking a lot about this, trying to determine what we can and can’t do.”
Palominos noted in her remarks that President Schulz has not responded directly to the students’ demands, but Huskey said he will likely be involved as conversations continue.
“I think that’s very much something that he wants to do as well,” she said.
The Rev. A. Stephen Van Kuiken, minister of the Community Congregational United Church of Christ in Pullman, addressed the group outside the administration building. He appreciated Schulz’s words of support in the letter, he said, but “it is time to go beyond mere words and provide safety and protection.”
The WSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors issued a statement in advance of the rally announcing its support for the Crimson Group’s petition.
“I think what they’re doing is really a great thing,” said Elizabeth Siler, an assistant English professor and English as a second language specialist.
Students at the rally spoke about their loyalty to WSU and their hope that the school that welcomed them will now protect their efforts to complete their education.
“I want to graduate from here and feel proud to be a Coug,” said sophomore Maria Yepez, noting the campus felt different to her the day after the presidential election.
Student Erik Sandoval’s handwritten sign included “#protectallcougs.”
Sandoval, a junior, heads public relations for WSU’s United Greek Association. The association serves the school’s culturally based fraternities and sororities.
He said his organization is looking for a commitment by the university both to being a sanctuary campus and to participating in the Dream Project, a program for low-income and first-generation students currently offered at the University of Washington.
“We want action,” he said. “Words is not going to cut it anymore.”
As participants began to disperse more than an hour after the demonstration began, Palominos shouted last words of encouragement.
“This is not the end,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”
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