In the wake of President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration policies, a student petition at Montclair State convinced Student Government Association (SGA) legislators to draft a bill on March 1 advocating for sanctuary campus status. If passed, the SGA will encourage Montclair State administrators to implement policies that would safeguard undocumented students, faculty and staff facing the threat of deportation.
SGA legislators will vote on the bill March 8.
The petition to push for the bill was spearheaded by students Liam Reilly, Matthew Kelly and Karen Cardell, who urged the SGA to advocate for undocumented members of Montclair State on Wednesday. After heated discussion on the floor, SGA Legislator Wellington Gomez accepted the opportunity to author a bill.
“These are not criminals, or people robbing us of anything. They are students,” said Gomez on Wednesday. ”I think that it is really important that [The SGA] makes a recommendation to administration protect the students on this campus.”
If passed, the SGA would advocate for administrators to refuse to cooperate with federal officials who seek to deport undocumented students by utilizing its autonomy as an educational institution, and to bolster protection for students protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or “Dream Act” program.
Currently, Montclair State does not collect information as to whether students are documented or undocumented. Immigration raids have also maintained the same rate in New Jersey, according to Homeland Security reports. Still, Montclair State student activists maintain that laws can change at a moment’s notice.
“This can positively impact the lives of a segment of our population who are most often left voiceless in our society,” said Reilly. Reilly initiated the petition that collected 132 student signatures and support from numerous faculty members, including the endorsement of Latin American Student Organization (LASO).
There are currently nine colleges that have declared themselves sanctuaries, with several other schools, such as Rutgers University restating policies that will protect the privacy of undocumented immigrants their institution.
“Unless you are a Native American, you are an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants,” said SGA President Matthew Lerman, who has found the current political rhetoric towards immigrants “disheartening.”
Lerman has also been cautious to individually endorse the bill, due to unknown financial effects that it could cause.
“I will support that bill as long as it gets passed,” said Lerman.
Montclair State University President Susan A. Cole shared a similar sentiment in a statement to The Montclarion.
“While higher education institutions across the nation are deeply concerned about keeping our campuses secure for all of our students and employees, it is not clear what such a declaration would actually mean,” Cole said via E-mail.
Several student advocates criticized the SGA and the administration for not taking an outright stance on the bill.
“It was our job to protect the rights of students,” said Cardell, who was the SGA president back in 1998.
“Now, you guys are in charge of looking out for the student body,” she said after questioning why members of SGA would not vocally support this petition.
“I see no problem in taking stances politically, it’s just that in the past few years, maybe the E-board didn’t want to take any political stances,” said SGA president Lerman.
The Student Government Association operates as an independent, tax-exempt non-profit group, known as a “501(c)(3)” organization, after the relevant section of the US Internal Revenue Code. Such organizations are prohibited by law, from engaging in political lobbying and election campaign activities. Nonetheless, there is no prohibition on them or individuals associated with them expressing opinions on any matter.
“The biggest thing seems to be the funding. Nonetheless, money versus the well-being and safety of students shouldn’t be a debate,” says LASO resident Madelyne Reyes, who immigrated to the United States from Honduras when she was seven. Reyes is aware of both students at Montclair State and family members living in a heightened state of fear both at home and at campus. “Everyday, they are unsure of what is going to happen.”
On Jan. 25, President Trump signed an Executive Order that he would reduce federal funds to cities that declare sanctuary status, but the order did not clarify if colleges would campuses face the same penalty. Montclair State receives $66.4 million in federal, state and private grants, according to their annual report. A decrease in federal funds could affect financial aid for students, however all cities and colleges that have declared themselves sanctuaries have yet to lose any federal aid.
“We are dealing with a politics of fear. They want us to cut people loose to save skin off our backs. For me as a Montclair state student, those aren’t Montclair State values,” said Kelly on Wednesday.
“Undocumented students face a lack of educational resources,” said Montclair State Child Advocacy professor Dr. Bradley Forenza, who has background in social work and first hand experience with DACA and “Dream Act” students. “An inclusive and educational community like ours must be vigilant in continuing to recognize and support the unique challenges that undocumented students face,” he added.
President Trump stated during last weeks media conference that while he does not foresee any immediate changes being made towards “Dream Act” students who are protected by the DACA program, did not completely rule it out.