Immigration advocacy has always been more of a footnote at Sarah Lawrence. It is an issue that takes the form of abstractions in a class about displacement, on-campus involvement with marches in the city, or comments in diversity panels. Despite our theoretical ponderings, the SLC community has not had an honest conversation about the status of students who are impacted by documentation issues. The student organization Sarah Lawrence for Immigration Advocacy seeks to change that, and to bring this issue into the light.
Throughout the spring semester, SLC for Immigration Advocacy (SLC4IA) has met with administrators multiple times to discuss meeting the needs of undocumented students.
On February 8, SLC4IA met with several offices, including Financial Aid, Diversity, and Multicultural Recruitment where Manuela (last name and class year have been omitted to protect the privacy of the family), shared her experiences as an undocumented student, her family’s legal struggles, and as the co-chair of SLC4IA aired her concerns about the state of immigrant rights on campus.
The administrators present were very receptive of the comments made by the leaders of SLC4IA. When this meeting concluded, it was evident that while Sarah Lawrence had undocumented friendly practices, by accepting students and meeting their curricular and financial needs, its lack of written policy or outward commitment did not provide undocumented students with the necessary recognition. Administration thought it best for this to be remedied by speaking to Kevin McKenna, Dean of Enrollment, to draft up a policy. They also requested undocumented-friendly posters to be placed around campus and their respective offices to signify that those were safe spaces.
On February 28, SLC4IA met with Kevin McKenna who drafted the policy for undocumented students at the University of Chicago. He told the student group that SLC has committed to continue enrolling undocumented youth, and will try to accommodate the financial needs of all admitted students. Dean McKenna also committed to inserting this policy on the Sarah Lawrence website but could not provide a clear timeline.
These small triumphs with administration are important markers for the state of immigrant rights on campus, but policy does not always translate into attitude. Engaging the student body in immigration advocacy work proved to be a more challenging task for the group because of general social apathy, and activist burnout. However, a campaign to fight the deportation of a community member’s father rallied widespread support.
On March 8, a mass email began circulating through campus, and while it began in social activist circles and the blogs of friends, by the evening it had hit over a thousand people. The subject of the email was the deportation of a community member’s father. Within it, there was a brief explanation of the case and a link to an online petition addressed toward Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency.
Within three days, the petition had over 6,000 signatures. Professors, staff members, administrators, and even President Karen Lawrence expressed their support on behalf of the family.
Students expressed their solidarity and support for those affected, and different organizations, such as Worker’s Justice, rallied behind Immigration Advocacy.
Through community involvement, the case received attention from congress members, lawyers, and media across the nation and because of these efforts, the case was given a full year until the next trial date, therefore effectively postponing the deportation temporarily.
The momentum from this victory has given SLC4IA the drive to continue pursuing justice on campus for our undocumented students and families. Throughout the final weeks of the spring semester, SLC4IA has been building toward long-term projects. Currently in the works is a project with Community Partnerships to empower surrounding communities of undocumented high school students in terms of pursuing higher education. This project will be launched in the upcoming fall semester.
On Friday, April 25, SLC4IA will be hosting a Leadership Summit. It will take place in Common Grounds from 1-6 p.m. The aim of this forum is to create a space through which community members can meet and exchange knowledge. There will be multiple workshops pertaining to movement building and sustainable organizing. The Summit will also serve as a space to have a conversation about the specific issues pertaining to immigrant and social justice that affect students at Sarah Lawrence.
Leyana Dessauer ’17, who is part of the leadership at SLC4IA states that she hopes these initiatives will, “engage people on campus in community building and meaningful work.”