Seven students met with Portland State President Daniel Bernstine Monday to demand that the administration remove Peter DeFazio as this year’s graduation commencement speaker, saying that because he recently voted for a controversial immigration bill, his presence at the ceremony would alienate a significant portion of the student population.
Defazio voted in favor of H.R. 4437, called the “Sensenbrener 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.
In the recent weeks, the bill has been at the center of heated a national debate on immigration. Most recently, thousands rallied in Portland and at PSU on May 1, part of a series of demonstrations across the country for immigrant rights.
The students told Bernstine they were concerned that if DeFazio were to speak at commencement, families who include immigrants may feel ostracized and attacked.
“This bill is the criminalization of our families,” PSU student Anne Olivia said to Bernstine at the meeting.
Student body President Erin Devaney said in an interview that several students have approached her with concerns over DeFazio speaking at graduation.
“The immigration bill has a direct negative impact on students at Portland State and their families,” Devaney said. “DeFazio’s vote on the immigration bill alienates an entire population of students at PSU.”
Understanding that to disinvite DeFazio was an unlikely outcome, students suggested a number of possible compromises, including arranging a second speaker or funding a speaker for the Multicultural Center’s alternative commencement ceremony.
Bernstine defended the administration’s choice of DeFazio, saying that the decision was based on DeFazio’s past support of PSU and his record of advocating for higher education.
“We invited [DeFazio] because of his overall record of education,” Bernstine said, “It would be inappropriate to disinvite him based on one vote.”
Portland State invited DeFazio to be commencement speaker before he voted on the immigration bill, Bernstine said. The university announced that DeFazio had accepted the invitation Feb. 20.
Bernstine also said that commencement speakers are often controversial. He cited Katie Harmon, the 2002 commencement speaker who was a Miss America pageant winner and PSU junior. Many students felt that she was an inappropriate choice.
Students who attended the meeting agreed that many commencement speakers are controversial, but said the issue of immigration hits too close to home.
“While having only speakers who are uncontroversial would be dull, it’s another thing to have a speaker whose decision turns members of the audience into felons,” said Dan Moore, a sociology major at PSU.
Bernstine and Deborah Murdock, assistant to the president for government relations, emphasized that the administration has officially opposed the bill. “The university has taken a different stand than the congressman,” Bernstine said.
But some students say having DeFazio speak effectively supports the bill. “By having him as the commencement speaker, PSU has endorsed Defazio as the public face of this graduation,” said PSU student Chelsea Varnum.
Moore said the bill could criminalize careers such as social work that students may wish to pursue in the future because they would be assisting illegal immigrants.
“DeFazio doesn’t support every provision, particularly the Good Samaritan provision,” said Penny Dodge, DeFazio’s chief of staff.
The administration rebuffed all of the compromises that the students put forth, suggesting that the students air their concerns directly to DeFazio or ignore his commencement address.
“Bernstine says that we will just forget our commencement speaker like he did, but I won’t forget my speaker and neither will my family,” said Angie Mejia, a first generation PSU student.
“We’re keenly aware of what this issue does to our ability to serve students,” said Murdock. “But there are so many public policy issues that come with a person who has a lifetime of public service.”
Many of the students left the meeting dissatisfied with what they said was the administration’s unwillingness to compromise.
The students said they were unsure of what their next move would be, but because of growing student concern it is likely that further action will be taken, even floating the possibility of protesting the graduation commencement.
“We came looking for a solution. It was really disappointing that the administration didn’t seem willing to move toward a solution,” Olivia said.