Under the forgettable headline, “Mexico Worker Issue Debated: Claremont Conference Takes Up Immigration,” a Los Angeles Times article told of a “record-breaking crowd” of more than 700 people gathered at Pomona College for an annual conference about U.S.-Mexican relations and immigration.
At the event, an American academic addressed “the influx of Mexicans to the United States,” while a Mexican border official upheld the “right to immigrate” and seek better prospects in the U.S. The two men did agree that a committee of immigration experts from both nations should be set up to look into the issue.
That was in 1928.
Being in Southern California, the College has long been touched by immigration. From the early days, Pomona has been part of the long-running debates over who to let into the country.
But this past year was different.
The 2011-12 school year brought events that, in the words of President David Oxtoby, drove “questions about our nation’s immigration policies into the very heart of our campus life.”
Seventeen workers lost their jobs—let go by the College—after a review of Pomona’s workplace documentation procedures. The issue was set off when a college employee made a complaint that Oxtoby’s administration (and previous ones) was not checking new employees’ documentation as the law requires. The complaint went to leaders of the Board of Trustees, who decided it required them to investigate, and they brought in the Sidley Austin law firm to do so. Ultimately, the lawyers found the College had been following the rules. There also were some problems.
As part of the audit, investigators examined every employee’s paperwork and found “deficiencies” with the files of 84 of them. Most problems were cleared up—but not all of them. After a deadline passed, 17 workers still were found to be lacking the right paperwork.
On Dec. 1, those workers were fired. Administrators said they had no other choice under the law. Sadness and anger followed. So did pickets, protests and a boycott of Frary Dining Hall. Faculty spoke out against the firings. Student tents went up on the lawn outside the administration building. Donations were collected for the workers (who also received severance pay).
Critics of the College’s approach questioned whether auditing employees’ documentation was truly necessary, or even appropriate. Some suggested enforcement action was unlikely. Others called on Pomona to refuse to comply with unjust laws. President Oxtoby agreed the regulations were too harsh and reform was needed, but said the College still had to obey the laws.
All this came in the midst of a unionization drive for campus dining workers. Union supporters on campus and beyond took up the cause of the fired workers. Groups ranging from the ACLU of Southern California to the National Council of La Raza joined the chorus. The issue played out in the media, reaching The New York Times and other outlets.
The College also had defenders, who said administrators were in a difficult situation and had to take the steps they did. And beyond campus, not everyone was sympathetic to the fired workers’ cause—witness the reader comments with the Times article.
As the school year closed, the Trustees released their own subcommittee report concluding, as The Student Life headline put it, that “Oversight Mistakes Were Avoidable, but Work Authorization Investigation Was Necessary …”
Another class graduated, and summer break set in.
Still, 17 Pomona College employees—no doubt people with families, commitments and bills—had lost their livelihoods. With immigration reform stalled for now, it is inevitable that similar stories will unfold elsewhere, perhaps out of the spotlight. America’s long debate over who gets in—and who gets to stay— is sure to carry on.
That’s what drives this issue of Pomona College Magazine. We’ve delved into some Pomona-related historical tales to provide context and shed light on conditions earlier immigrants faced. We’ve asked four alumni with strong views on immigration reform to propose ways to move forward. Finally, we want to introduce you to young alumni with immigrant backgrounds and let them share their own paths, in their own voices. We don’t expect to end the divide over immigration. We do hope to offer a glimpse beyond the wall. —Mark Kendall
TIMELINE OF EVENTS:
The complaint is received by the chair of the Board.
Vice chair of the Audit Committee retains the Sidley Austin law firm to conduct an investigation.
Sidley Austin begins review of I-9 documents for all staff, faculty and part-time employees.
Sidley Austin reports no wrongdoing on the part of the administration but identifies deficiencies to be addressed.
84 Pomona faculty, staff and part-time employees are notified that they have deficiencies in their work authorization files and that they should schedule an appointment with Human Resources.
17 Employees who are unable to correct deficiencies in their files lose their jobs. 150-200 staff, students, alumni and members of UNITE HERE protest. Members of the Board meet with staff, faculty and students. The Board appoints a subcommittee to review the investigation.
The subcommittee of the Board releases its report, concluding that there were “breakdowns in communication” and that the Board could have done “a better job of supervising the investigation,” but that the investigation was necessary.
MORE INFORMATION ON:
•work authorization events — www.pomona.edu/work-documentation
•subcommittee report [pdf] — www.pomona.edu/board-review2012
•new policies [pdf] —www.pomona.edu/whistleblower-policy2012
•unionization — www.pomona.edu/unionization
Excerpts from The Student Life:
Nov. 11, 2011
Pomona Reviews Employee Documents; WFJ Protests
“Pomona College began checking the work authorization documents of 84 of its employees, provoking widespread outrage from many students, professors, and staff members. Supporters of Workers for Justice (WFJ), the pro-union group of Pomona dining hall staff, began demonstrating before dawn on Tuesday in opposition to what they saw as a campaign of intimidation, while college administrators insisted that the document verification process was legally required because of an external audit that is unrelated to unionization. … ”
Nov. 18, 2011
Faculty Resolve to Support Workers; Students, Staff Protest Document Checks
“At a faculty meeting Nov. 16, Pomona College President David Oxtoby pointed to fears of potential involvement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and reiterated that the college must re-verify the work authorization documents of 84 college employees before Dec. 1. The Pomona College administration has been under fire this week as students, faculty, and staff questioned the college’s decision to ask those employees to meet with the Office of Human Resources to provide valid federal work authorization documents. Opponents of the document reviews expressed their discontent in a vigil Nov. 11, a teach-in event Nov. 14, and a protest and press conference 16 that attracted local news media. … ”
Dec. 2, 2011
17 Employees Terminated Over Documents; Boycott, Vigil Extended
“Pomona College fired 17 staff members yesterday, after those employees were unable to meet the college’s deadline for submitting updated work authorization documents. The terminations, which most directly affected dining services employees, marked the end of a three-week verification process that has provoked outrage from many organizations and individuals, both within and beyond the Claremont Colleges. Demonstrations against the college’s actions are expected to continue into the weekend, as two of the community’s most visible groups of protesters signaled that they would keep up their efforts. … ”
May. 16, 2012
Oversight Mistakes Were Avoidable, but Work Authorization Investigation Was Necessary, Report Finds
“The Pomona College Board of Trustees made some mistakes related to communication and oversight of the investigation that led to the firing of 17 staff members last year, but the comprehensive audit of work authorization documents for all Pomona employees was necessary, according to a report by a subcommittee of trustees.
The board voted Saturday to accept the subcommittee’s report. Pomona students, professors and staff received access to an online version of the report Monday.
One day before the board accepted the report, the board’s Audit Committee adopted a new set of policies for handling complaints. Audit Committee Chair Terrance Hodel ’64 said that the new policies were necessary because there was no preexisting procedure for responding to complaintslike the one that the board received last year, which accused the Pomona administration of having illegal hiring practices. … ”
More from The Student Life: http://tsl.pomona.edu/