A Little Less Invisible
Undocumented students rally after El Centro is vandalized.
Oct. 17, 2013
There is something special about Building 406, or El Centro Arnulfo Casillas, the two-story, withered building behind Davidson Library on the UC Santa Barbara campus. If you’re not looking for it, it’s easy to miss. El Centro’s entrance sinks a couple of feet below ground level, so the top of the structure peaks over its grassy surroundings like a timid creature in a green sea.
For most students at UCSB, El Centro is almost invisible: They don’t know what it’s for or why it’s here. Many of the undocumented students on campus feel similarly overlooked or misunderstood by the larger student body. That is why El Centro, the central gathering place for undocumented students and campus headquarters for IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success), a student-run organization supporting undocumented students and promoting immigrant rights, is such a valued place. It’s become a safe haven for those whose status often leaves them feeling relegated to the margins of campus life.
As has been reported, that safe haven was violated on Sunday morning, August 4, when fourth-year psychology major and black studies minor Pedro Leon found the following message scrawled on the glass-door entrance to El Centro: Deportation = Justice. Deport Illegals NOW!
For an undocumented student like Leon, a former co-chair of IDEAS (an organization to which I belong), the message was a slap in the face. Leon snapped a picture of the scrawl and quickly uploaded it to IDEAS’ closed-group Facebook page.
“Is this what this campus has to offer?” his caption read. “How can people say that racism on campus does not exist? We need to do something about this.” Leon then wiped the glass door clean of the offending message.
The vandalizing of El Centro spurred IDEAS’ leaders to push for more inclusivity on campus and within the larger UC system. Over the summer, the organization worked on “A Resolution in Support of Undocumented Students and Immigrant Communities,” intended to raise awareness of undocumented students’ legal presence on the 10-campus system and facilitate their integration into student life. The group also endorsed the “No Confidence” movement spreading to various UC campuses, which declares no confidence in new UC President Janet Napolitano’s ability to fulfill the University of California’s mission statement.
That statement promises “to serve society as a center of higher learning, providing long-term societal benefits through transmitting advanced knowledge…[through] education, research, and other kinds of public service.” Napolitano’s role in the record number of federal deportations during her tenure as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security had some questioning her commitment to those ideals.
Immigration rights groups have criticized the Secure Communities program initiated by Napolitano when she ran the department. Opponents say Secure Communities, which relies on local jurisdictions providing information to the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, encourages racial profiling and ignores probable cause and equal-protection rights.
On October 1, IDEAS co-chair Gloria Campos and nine other students from different UC campuses met with Napolitano in her Oakland, Calif. office to discuss IDEAS’ resolution. The students called for Napolitano to hold mandatory trainings for University of California police on the rights of undocumented students, train UC staff on undocumented student issues—difficulties in navigating the system, assimilation into American culture, accepting their status, among others—and to implement a for-credit course on those issues. They also called on Napolitano to improve outreach to undocumented high school students and to support the Trust Act. The Trust Act was recently signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown and limits California’s cooperation with Secure Communities.
According to Campos, Napolitano listened and promised to “review the demands.” The students hope to meet with the UC president again before the fall quarter ends in early December.
At UCSB, the resolution was presented to the Associated Students Senate, which deliberated the matter for two consecutive meetings. The senate finally rejected the amendment on October 9. Twelve members voted in its favor and only nine opposed it, but a two-thirds majority is required for it to be adopted by the senate.
One student senator said the resolution represented too few students—116 undocumented students on a campus of 20,000. Another argued that the demands were not part of Napolitano’s job description. Other senate members did not oppose the resolution entirely and suggested several modifications. Had it been approved, UCSB would have joined student senates at UC Berkeley and UC Irvine in declaring no confidence in Napolitano unless she met the resolution’s demands.
The mixed reaction was not surprising. Since the day of the attack at El Centro, IDEAS has received positive and negative attention. Hours after Leon uploaded pictures of the anti-immigrant message, IDEAS released a statement decrying discrimination—citing an alleged verbal attack on an undocumented student by a student senator, reminding students that El Centro is a “safe haven,” and protesting the appointment of Napolitano as UC President.
While several campus organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine, El Congreso (both users of El Centro), Student Coalition for Justice, the Human Rights Board, UCSB’s Equal Opportunity Program, professor of Chicano/Chicana Studies Ralph Armbruster and even students from UCLA and UC Berkeley supported IDEAS’ statements, others disagreed. Several students took to Facebook, where the statement was published, and to the Daily Nexus website in support of the pro-deportation message left by the vandal. One Daily Nexus commenter said the tagging was “a clean message attacking undocumented freeloaders. One person’s hate speech is another’s free speech.”
Another questioned the authenticity of the attack itself, pointing out that Leon was the only one who actually saw the message before he snapped a photo and wiped the glass door clean. “I suspect the culprit was themselves [sic] a Chicano Studies major attempting to drum up sympathy for their cause,” the person wrote. “Who else would even know about this building?”
s Leon explains it, he went to El Centro at 9 a.m. on that August morning to study, but was distracted by what he saw on the sliding-glass door. Initially, he thought someone who frequents El Centro might have left a message saying something like, “Stop Deportation.” But then he read it.
“Damn. That’s all I thought,” Leon recalls. “Just, damn.”
Leon says the words, things he’d heard growing up, in the media and even from teachers, were particularly jarring to read at El Centro, the last place he expected to confront that sort of harassment.
When asked why he didn’t leave the tag intact for police to investigate, Leon says his reaction was instinctual and protective, similar to how one might feel if one’s home was violated. Mission and State compared photos of the message to Leon’s own handwriting, and while certainly not scientific, the samples don’t appear at all similar.
University police declined to classify the incident as a hate crime explaining that “illegal” is not a derogatory term. This surprised me, but I was even more surprised that someone would attack our organization. But maybe I shouldn’t have been. Students who disapprove of our advocacy work for immigrant rights or question undocumented students’ rights to even attend UCSB have approached IDEAS members in the past. And most undocumented students know what it’s like to go to the billing office, or financial aid, or the registrar and to awkwardly explain to a suspicious staff member that no, they do not have a social security number, and no, they do not qualify for student loans.
But this was different. It was an attack on IDEAS’ home.
Chancellor Henry Yang and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Michael Young sent a campus-wide email on August 6, two days after the incident. The message condemned “acts of intolerance directed toward any member of our community” and went on to praise diversity on campus and encourage mutual respect.
A week after the vandalism, IDEAS leaders—including Leon, Campos and fellow co-chair Linda Gonzalez, as well as student leaders from organizations including El Congreso and Mujer met with Yang, Senior Associate Vice Chancellor Marc Fisher, and Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Academic Policy Maria Herrera-Sobek.
Yang said an investigation was underway and promised more frequent police patrols in the area, better lighting and to “include El Centro in the route of my own daily campus walks, mostly in the morning, late at night and during the daytime on weekends.”
I caught up with Gonzalez after the meeting. “[Chancellor Yang] seemed genuinely concerned about the situation,” she said. Then she started laughing and raised her right foot. “You know what he did? He put his leg over the table and showed us his tennis shoes. They were muddy. He actually patrols around campus!”
So far, the investigation hasn’t led anywhere. Sergeant David Millard of the UCSB Police Department says that while “the investigation is still pending,” there is not much that could be done unless another attack took place and further evidence was made available since there was none left at the scene of this incident.
As far as Gonzalez is concerned, “It’s not about catching this one person that put the writing on the door anymore. To me, it’s about addressing the way in which undocumented students are rendered invisible by our campus.”
The unintended outcome of the attack on El Centro, though, is that we’re a little less invisible since those mean-spirited words were written on our door. Acts like these only strengthen our solidarity and remind us that there is much work to be done. This act was not a setback—it was an encouragement.