CLAREMONT — Pomona and Pitzer College students have voted to join their peers at nine other West Coast campuses and help provide sanctuary for the estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Central American refugees living in the United States.
In separate ballots, students on the two campuses have passed resolutions pledging to support local refugee centers and a refugee bail fund, and if need be, to provide refugees temporary off-campus housing. The resolutions also declare that no college funds or college housing will be used to harbor or transport refugees.
"I think it's a responsible statement," said Robert Voelkel, dean of Pomona College. "I think it's good for students to consider issues like this, as long as they don't commit the resources of the college." Pomona and Pitzer officials said they can neither condone or reject the resolutions.
Viewed as Symbolic
Pomona Dean of Students Richard Fass said he viewed the resolutions as a symbolic "expression of support for a significant human rights issue."
But at a Tuesday press conference in Los Angeles, Michael Teahan, a Pitzer sanctuary organizer, said the resolutions are more than symbolic. Teahan, a senior, said students at both campuses will raise funds to rent a house in Claremont where refugees can stay.
More important, said Mary Searcy, a Pomona senior, the resolutions passed by students at the two colleges--which are among the five Claremont colleges--are the first on college campuses to be based on an untested legal argument that refugees are protected under provisions of the Geneva Convention and international humanitarian law.
Pomona's students voted last week to adopt a sanctuary measure. About 43% of Pomona's 1,350-member student body voted. Pitzer students passed a similar measure April 15. About 55% of Pitzer's 850 students voted. Both resolutions were approved by more than 80% of those voting.
Clearinghouse in Riverside
Besides the Claremont campuses, student governments at eight University of California and California State University campuses, including UC Riverside, UC Irvine, UCLA and Cal State Northridge, have passed sanctuary resolutions, said Kenneth Kwong of the Campus Sanctuary Network--a UC Riverside-based clearinghouse for the student sanctuary movement. Kwong said the University of Colorado at Boulder is the only school outside California to approve such a measure.
Searcy said, however, that Pomona's and Pitzer's resolutions differ greatly from other sanctuary measures. Kwong agreed, saying the Claremont resolutions are the only ones based on the Geneva Convention.
Simply put, the resolutions contend that the Geneva Convention of 1949 and 1977, of which the United States is a signatory, makes it illegal for the U.S. government to deny entry to Central Americans who are fleeing human rights violations or civil war in their native countries. The resolutions also contend that the government cannot stop U.S. citizens from providing sanctuary to these refugees.
'Upholding International Law'
"What we are doing is neither illegal nor an act of civil disobedience," Searcy said. "We are upholding international law. We call upon our government to do the same."
But Joe Flanders, an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spokesman, said that until these issues are settled in court, students who plan to provide even temporary off-campus housing to illegal aliens may end up violating the law.
Flanders said it is a felony to smuggle, harbor or transport illegal aliens, or to conspire to do so. Although the INS has a policy of not raiding schools or churches, he said the agency reserves the right to go after illegal aliens wherever they are sheltered.
Searcy said the legal arguments for the sanctuary movement in the past have been based on the constitutional protection of freedom of religion and on the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980. The latter grants political asylum to any illegal alien who proves that deportation to his or her country of origin would mean certain persecution or death.
Bid to Overturn Convictions
The legal issues raised by the Pomona and Pitzer resolutions are based on friend-of-the-court briefs filed by lawyer Karen Parker in a bid to overturn the convictions of sanctuary workers Stacey Merkt and Jack Elder. Merkt and Elder were sentenced in a Houston federal court in February for conspiring to smuggle Salvadorans into Texas. Merkt faces a five-year sentence, Elder a 30-year sentence. The appeals are scheduled to be heard on May 9th in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans.
Parker, who represents Human Rights Advocates Inc., a San Francisco-based a human rights group recognized by the United Nations, said in a telephone interview that she developed her argument in a report presented to the U.N. special representative for El Salvador, Jose Antonio Pastor Ridruejo.