Universities should regulate the Border Patrol on campus

As Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceIceland's prime minister will not be in town for Pence's visit Trump's latest plan to undermine Social Security Nikki Haley voices 'complete support' for Pence MORE visited Nogales, Arizona this week amidst the Trump administration's push for a border crackdown, a short distance up the road at the University of Arizona in Tucson, a heated debate continues over the presence of the Border Patrol on campus.

I have been a University of Arizona faculty member for 17 years. What's happening on our campus is a cautionary tale for other universities, underscoring the need to regulate how campuses interact with the Border Patrol.

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In the past few days, more than 500 University of Arizona professors have signed a letter to the university's president, Robert Robbins, protesting the university's decision to file criminal charges against three students who spoke out in protest during a March 19 university event where uniformed and fully armed Border Patrol agents came onto campus.

The Border Patrol had been invited to the university's career fair and to speak to an undergraduate criminal justice club. As the club meeting was taking place, a small group of students stood in the hallway and yelled at the agents to leave campus. Three students are now being charged with interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution. One student is being cited for threats and intimidation. These are class one misdemeanors that could carry a sentence of up to six months in jail. 

There is concern that the university's decision to charge the students may have been motivated by pressure from the Border Patrol and conservative groups, after National Border Patrol Council Vice President Art Del Cueto called for an investigation.

As a video of the March 19 incident went viral, the students received death threats. So did some of their faculty supporters, including the university's Mexican American Studies Department, which was temporarily evacuated on April 2 because of threats.

On April 10, a half-mile line of students and faculty walked single-file into Robbins office to deliver petitions demanding that the university drop the charges against the three students, prioritize investigating the death threats and regulate the presence of the Border Patrol on campus.   

All of this could have been avoided if the university had put in place prior guidelines for how to deal with the Border Patrol's access to campus. 

In messages to the campus community, Robbins has stressed that the students' actions disrupted free speech on campus. But an eyewitness to the March 19 incident, English professor Fenton Johnson, whose class was meeting across the hallway, wrote in a letter to Robbins that the presence of the uniformed Border Patrol agents on campus, with no advance warning from the university, was the real distraction: 

"I don’t know what I would have done had the officers knocked at my classroom door, but it was that prospect, not the demonstration, that distracted me from teaching my course. I was wholly preoccupied with imagining what I would do if that knock at the door came. Demand paperwork? Bar the door? Cooperate under protest? What were my rights? My responsibilities? What are my students’ rights?"

I have the same visceral reaction whenever I see a Border Patrol vehicle on campus: What's going on? Why are they here? What should I do? If I feel that way as a white U.S. citizen, I can only imagine how non-citizens and people of color feel when confronted with the Border Patrol.

The University of Arizona student government weighed in on the controversy, noting that the presence of the Border Patrol on campus "negatively impacts our DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] and undocumented community." But the effects of Border Patrol actions go well beyond non-citizens. As University of Arizona postdoctoral researcher Geoffrey Boyce has documented, most immigration enforcement actions in Tucson affect mixed-status families, causing profound psychological and economic distress to citizens and non-citizens alike.

Teaching at a border university, or any large public university, is complex. I teach the children of undocumented immigrants and the children of Border Patrol agents, often in the same class. Some of my students become Border Patrol agents, since those are among the best-paying jobs in southern Arizona.

I want students to understand the perspective of the Border Patrol. But that's not the point. The point is to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone in the campus community. And for that, universities need a protocol for how the Border Patrol engages with campus. 

It's unlikely that a publicly funded university could bar the Border Patrol from campus. But universities could take measures to better protect students. Border Patrol representatives could participate in career fairs or speak to classes and clubs via video.

In the event that agents do come onto campus for university-sanctioned events, university authorities should issue a prior campus-wide alert. And Border Patrol agents should be required to adhere to campus policies such as the "no guns" rule. 

In our case, the Arizona Board of Regents maintains a prohibition on guns and other weapons on campus. But the Border Patrol is allowed to enter campus fully armed. It's hard to imagine the university as a true "marketplace of ideas," as the administration likes to say, when some participants in that "marketplace" carry guns and act with impunity.

Referring to the University of Arizona controversy, in a radio interview, Del Cueto told listeners to “send me the names of the actual illegal aliens at the school and their addresses and I will be glad, on behalf of the Border Patrol union, to send any type of information when agents are going to be at their school.”

This callous assumption that the Border Patrol can intimidate students freely is precisely what makes a deeper conversation about the presence of the Border Patrol on university campuses necessary.

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At this point, the University of Arizona administration no doubt hopes that the county attorney general's office will drop the charges against the students so that the controversy fades away, along with the negative national and international attention. Simply dropping the charges, however, will not resolve this issue. Nor will campus-wide conversations on "civility." 

What's required is greater sensitivity to the specific vulnerability of marginalized groups within the campus community. At minimum, that requires regulating the presence of the Border Patrol on campus. Such a small step would not mitigate the overall negative impact of current border and immigration policies, but it would be a sign that the university intends to live up to its vaunted commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Elizabeth Oglesby is associate professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She researches and teaches on human rights, migration and border issues and is co-editor of “The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics.”