Students call for DeFazio to denounce immigration vote

Two weeks ago they were a group of students loosely united by one goal: to negotiate with the university for an alternate commencement speaker or ceremony.

Because U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) voted yes on a controversial immigration bill that would make illegal immigrants felons, some wanted him booted as this year’s commencement speaker altogether, saying that they, their families and other students would be made uncomfortable or feel alienated at the graduation ceremony.

Today this group of students is the Student Immigrant Solidarity Coalition, and after an emotional meeting with President Daniel Bernstine May 8 that many of the students considered fruitless, their new goal is to urge DeFazio to publicly renounce his vote and push for more student involvement in the process of choosing a commencement speaker in the future.

“It’s not all people of color, but people who don’t feel this is right,” said coalition member Angie Mejia. Mejia decided to take part in the group because her cousin, who is graduating this year, has undocumented family members who want to attend the ceremony. “It’s like a slap in the face to her. If I was in such and such situation, I would be very angry.”

Members of the coalition tabled between Cramer Hall and Smith Wednesday, passing out flyers and urging students to call the offices of Bernstine and DeFazio. At press time, Bernstine’s office said they had received 15 phone calls since noon.

Danielle Langone, a spokeswoman for DeFazio, said that they received a few calls Tuesday, but many previous phone calls were in support of DeFazio’s decision. “Today we did receive a smattering of calls from students who are concerned with the congressman’s position on immigration, but that number of calls doesn’t come close to the number of calls we receive on a daily basis concerning other important issues like the war in Iraq, NSA spying, Sudan, gas prices, healthcare and on and on.”

Currently, the commencement speaker is chosen by the Executive Committee, a group of seven administrators who suggest and discuss possible candidates, choose one speaker and send out an invitation.

Members of the coalition said that they would like to negotiate with President Bernstine for more student involvement, but that the president’s office declined a second meeting.

Assistant to the president for government relations and executive committee member Debbie Murdock said that the president’s office has not received a formal request for a meeting, but that she did decline to meet with an individual who approached her after a meeting.

The students also sent a letter to DeFazio May 22 demanding that the congressman denounce his vote. The letter said that if DeFazio does not take action by June 2, “we do intend to protest the inclusion of your voice in our celebration. Please consider the effects that this vote has had, a pointed attack on families and working-class people across the country and stand with the graduates of PSU on our day of celebration.”

Coalition member Chelsea Varnum said that while the possible protest is still in the planning stages, whatever they plan will not be disruptive to the ceremony.

“By protest we don’t mean picket signs and yelling,” she said. “We don’t want to protest. We want this to be a celebration – we know everyone has worked very hard to get to this point.”

Varnum said the group is discussing having a separate graduation celebration outside of the Rose Garden, where the graduation ceremony will be held, or making a statement by way of messages pinned to clothing.

Murdock said that there will probably be a designated “free speech” area outside the arena for students who wish to protest.

DeFazio voted in favor of H.R. 4437, called the Sensenbrenner bill. The bill, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in mid-December, would make illegal immigrants felons. The bill would also make it a felony to assist or protect illegal immigrants.

Some of the members of the group, such as Varnum and Dan Moore, are active in the group in part because they worry about how the bill will affect their future career goals. Both are majors in community development and worry that the Sensenbrenner bill will criminalize work they might do with immigrants in the future.

“This is an attack on a lot of people I’m graduating with,” Moore said.