By Pedro Rios
In late April at San Diego City College over two-dozen students quickly mobilized after learning that Border Patrol agents would have a booth at the career fair. The students solicited support from their professors, who also reached out to community organizations, and planned a public demonstration at the Quad where the career fair would be held. On the morning of the career fair, several students reported seeing Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials setting up a booth at the Quad – (CBP is the Border Patrol’s parent agency). By midday, however, Macy’s store representatives occupied the booth originally assigned to the CBP officials. Border Patrol and CBP recruitment agents were nowhere to be seen.
Everyone speculated that City College administrators learned that the developing student protest wasn’t just a gripe by a handful of disgruntled students. Rather, the disapproval had become a generalized objection to the presence of an agency tainted with an abusive history. Administrators had already received a disapproving email from one faculty member, and they probably consulted with CBP about wanting to avoid controversy, so they packed up and left.
The students moved forward with the protest repudiating the Border Patrol on their campus. They held a banner with painted images of people killed by Border Patrol agents at the walkway bridge above the Quad while a modern dance performance accompanied a poem read by a student. Student speakers took turns at the megaphone remembering the victims of Border Patrol violence as other students scrawled their names on the walkway floor. Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, Valeria Munique Tachiquin, Francisco Ceseña, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, and many more — each name was a reminder that a human life was needlessly taken away, and where justice continued to be elusive for the victims’ families.
Meanwhile, career fair representatives attempted to drown-out the students by raising the volume to background music. When approached about lowering the volume, one staff person, face reddened, retorted with profanity chastising the students for exercising their first amendment rights, even if against a border enforcement agency with little to no accountability.
Student protests of Border Patrol presence at career fairs is not new. Just a week prior, at MiraCosta College, students organized a reenactment of the brutal killing of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a father of five who was beaten and tasered to death by over 12 agents in May 2010. When they finished their reenactment, they stood in silence holding their red-painted palms in the air, in front of the Border Patrol agents stationed at their booth. After ten minutes of silence, they repeated the reenactment and at its conclusion, stood in silence again. Other students organized a Border Reality Checkpoint adjacent to the Border Patrol, which consisted of informing students about their rights, and about how Border Patrol operates with unchecked power. This was the second student-led protest this year at MiraCosta College in response to Border Patrol presence at the career fair.
Border Patrol spokesperson Wendi Lee commented to the UT that “such protests have occurred more frequently recently,” but she couldn’t recall any in San Diego. This was a surprising statement because two weeks before in early April, Border Patrol agents at a career fair at Cal State San Marcos in northern San Diego County attempted to intimidate students who protested them. They held smart phones close to their faces, as students remarked that Border Patrol agents made them feel unsafe at the university. Students are now advocating for Cal State San Marcos to become a sanctuary campus, free of Border Patrol presence.
In February, Border Patrol agents were disinvited from a job fair at Lincoln High School in central San Diego when students and teachers objected to their presence. It should be noted that Munique Tachiquin’s son attended Lincoln High School. She was a mother of five shot and killed by a plainclothes Border Patrol agent in 2012 in an urban Chula Vista neighborhood.
Last year on October 22, students at UC Irvine convinced their administrators that CBP officials should not participate at the career fair. Psychology student Amy Yu commented, “CBP withdrawing from the UC Irvine Career Fair is a first step of victory for the undocumented student community on campus. The next step is making sure that an event like this shouldn’t and wouldn’t happen again.” Other protests have taken place at UC Santa Barbara and San Diego State University.
Protests of CBP at career fairs are not limited to Southern California. In New Mexico and Texas, recent protests of Border Patrol raised concerns about the safety of students and the insensitivity of school administrators about inviting CBP to career fairs. In Arizona, students demanded that school officials divest from Border Patrol and CBP associations, suggesting that students are objecting to a deeper institutionalized acquiescence about what the Border Patrol represents. By consenting to CBP presence without student input, school administrators devalue the merit of their institutions because it shows they are disconnected from real life issues that affect the student body. Many students live through serious trauma caused by a broken immigration system, and Border Patrol embodies that broken system precisely because their function is to detain and deport their neighbors, relatives, and even their parents. Beyond what they represent, CBP agents have abused their power for decades as critiqued in numerous government-sanctioned reports.
A week after the City College incident, a reporter with Univision asked my opinion about the student protests. He shared that Border Patrol complained to them that students were creating a hostile environment – the protests were not permitting them to meet their aggressive recruitment schedule.
Curious about this complaint was the insinuation that Border Patrol and CBP were the victims because “hostile” students prevented them from recruiting at college and high school campuses. This distorted power dynamic, that Border Patrol is the injured party, seems to be an attempt to rework a deeply-rooted viewpoint, supported by numerous cases, about how out of control that agency has been. Similarly, a false narrative promoted at a recent Border Patrol-led event meant to portray the agency as a compassionate law enforcement partner of civil society, intimating there might be a concerted effort to absolve the agency of historic wrongdoing by presenting CBP and Border Patrol as both compassionate and as victims.
Certainly there are notable and commendable Border Patrol-led efforts. Agents in Arizona have funded rescue beacons that save migrant lives. The crisis of migrant deaths in crossing corridors is a human catastrophe that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Expanding the use of rescue beacons is something that Congress has not acted on, despite its life-saving potential.
Student protests don’t occur in a political vacuum, however. Deportations, family separation, racial profiling, beatings and brutality – all life-altering events – have tarnished CBP’s reputation with border communities because for decades agents have perpetrated those actions with impunity. In response, students protesting CBP and Border Patrol agents on their campuses represent a grassroots approach of holding CBP accountable because there haven’t been internal mechanisms to do so.
Scrutiny of enforcement policies was possible only after public outcry by advocates and concerned community members, including students. It is that public scrutiny that led a Department of Homeland Security advisory group to release a report concluding that the Border Patrol poses a threat to national security for its susceptibility to corruption. Students raise their voice because they have a fundamental right and responsibility to be concerned about how their school administrators envision they will realize their professional aspirations. Those aspirations should be free of law enforcement agencies with dubious track records on protecting civil and human rights.
Responsible students have expressed that not only is safety a legitimate concern when CBP is recruiting at their campuses, but so is being in solidarity with those families and communities that have suffered because of abusive CBP practices. Often those students protesting are from the families who have seen their family members victimized by abusive, unchecked power.
It is incumbent upon school administrators to act responsibly and respect the value of students’ concerns. This is the type of critical leadership that high schools, colleges, and universities need – students that hold their institutions accountable when administrators, disconnected from students’ lived-experiences, make poor decisions. These decisions at best, belittle what students have experienced outside of the school environment, or at worst, place students’ lives at risk.