‘Safe haven’ proposed at Santa Rosa Junior College to shield undocumented and vulnerable students

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


Santa Rosa Junior College has joined the growing number of schools and colleges across California and the nation that are grappling with how to calm nerves in their diverse student populations as President Donald Trump’s administration gears up to crack down on illegal immigration.

The college recently organized a campuswide town hall meeting, giving students an opportunity to air their concerns over Trump’s rhetoric and plans to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

In what looks to be a closely watched vote Tuesday, the college’s board of trustees is set to decide on a resolution declaring the college a “safe haven” for its hundreds of undocumented students, prohibiting federal immigration agents from accessing its campuses and student records without approval from college President Frank Chong.

The measure, crafted with input from students, faculty and staff, prohibits the campus from releasing personal information about students, including immigration status, without a court order, judicial warrant or subpoena. It also prohibits professors and other campus employees from outing undocumented students and campus police from questioning or making arrests solely on a person’s immigration status.

“It’s a watershed moment for us,” Chong said.

He recently added his name to a petition urging federal officials to uphold and expand a program created under President Barack Obama’s administration — one that Trump has pledged to act on in the coming weeks — that allows immigrants brought into the U.S. illegally as children to obtain worker permits and temporary relief from deportation. The petition, started at Pomona College, has support from more than 600 college presidents around the country, including those from Yale, Harvard and Sonoma State University.

“It’s a very dangerous and slippery slope when you start saying we welcome all students — except these students,” Chong said in an interview last week. “You start getting away from the fundamental principle of community colleges, which is one of open access.”

The resolution comes as a number of colleges and school districts across the state have taken similar stances to support their undocumented students. At SRJC, it follows a move by administrators to reaffirm the campus’s nondiscrimination policy, a safeguard covering students, faculty and staff.

Shortly after Trump’s election last year, the University of California issued a statement, vowing to support and protect undocumented students and not allow campus police departments to enter into agreements with federal immigration agents or arrest anyone because of immigration status. The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office followed days later with a similar statement, reaffirming that the system of 113 colleges would continue to advocate for all students, regardless of status, and that it would not cooperate with federal officials in creating a registry of people based on religion, race, birthplace or sexual orientation.

Santa Rosa City Schools last month declared its K-12 district, the largest in Sonoma County, a safe haven for immigrant families, barring federal immigration agents from coming onto campus without the superintendent’s approval. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson had recommended all public schools adopt that stance in December. The Sonoma County Office of Education and Sonoma Valley and Windsor school districts followed suit, adopting similar resolutions.

At Sonoma State University, President Judy Sakaki issued a statement in January, affirming that the university will not honor immigration hold requests, arrest individuals because of immigration status, or enter into any agreement with immigration authorities.

While SRJC modeled its proposal on moves by other colleges, Chong said the resolution going before board trustees Tuesday is a combination of statements by the student body government and faculty and staff associations and unions.

SRJC Trustee Dorothy Battenfeld said she started to hear from students and their families about fears of deportation under the new administration. Faculty and staff also voiced concern for their students.

“It was pretty obvious there was a lot of uncertainty, fear and anxiety,” Battenfeld said. “We were all concerned as board members. Our job is to stand up for the values of the college, which means we provide an inclusive, high-quality learning community for everybody. … Everybody has a right to education, free of discrimination.”

Maggie Fishman, the SRJC board president, said trustees felt an immediate need to respond and reassure students. “It’s important that we show solidarity behind our students and reinforce our values and commitment to our students,” she said.

Roughly 480 undocumented students are currently enrolled at SRJC, said Rafael Vazquez, an outreach coordinator. That’s down about a quarter from last semester, he said.

The decrease could be in part due to fears of deportation, Vazquez said. Some have voiced worry that Trump will do away with the Obama-era program shielding undocumented immigrants who arrived as children so they’re opting to work and save money in case they’re forced to leave the country, he said. About two-thirds the 633 students known to be undocumented in the fall semester qualified for the program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

“These students mean money for us,” said Vazquez, who estimated undocumented students bring in about $4 million a year for the college, which has a total enrollment of 28,000 students across its Santa Rosa and Petaluma campuses. “If they’re not here, that means we’re going to suffer.”

Trump vowed to end DACA when he took office. But he’s since signaled a softened stance, telling ABC News in late January that students covered under the program — California had the highest number of approved applications last year, at 216,000, according to Pew Research — “shouldn’t be very worried.”

“I do have a big heart,” Trump said. “We’re going to take care of everybody … Where you have great people that are here that have done a good job, they should be far less worried.”

Santa Rosa Junior College stayed clear of the politically charged term, “sanctuary,” a designation that Trump warned could lead to the loss of federal funding for communities that refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities.

Battenfeld said “safe haven” is less controversial and a more appropriate term for the college, which she said strives to protect all its students, not just undocumented immigrants.

“It implies safety, not just on immigration status, but religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender,” Battenfeld said. “We want everybody at the junior college to be safe and respected.”

Given the anxiety reported on campus, student government President Jordan Panana Carbajal said it was important that the board take on the resolution and that faculty and staff receive more training on challenges facing undocumented and marginalized populations.

“Many of my family members are undocumented. I know the fear and the trauma the undocumented community is facing especially through this government right now,” said Panana Carbajal, who was previously undocumented and is advocating for more safe spaces on campus for DACA students to gather and seek counseling and services.

“Although the resolution is good, more action needs to be taken,” he said.

The college will not require faculty to attend trainings, nor does it detail in the resolution any consequences for employees violating the policies. Still, Chong argued it makes it “very clear where we stand.” He said he would determine consequences on a “case by case basis.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com.

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine