The voices of farm workers were heard, literally, during Tuesday’s Columbia Gorge Community College Board meeting.
In a unanimous board decision May 9, the board approved a resolution declaring sanctuary status for the CGCC campuses in The Dalles and Hood River.
All board members were in the room except for J. Carmelo Gamez, who joined the session via conference call while at work in his orchard. As he spoke with the board, made a statement, and cast his vote, his fellow workers could be heard talking in the background.
“I understand how students at the college feel with this (Trump) administration. Fear and school do not mix,” Gamez said, telling of his own experiences with discrimination while growing up in California. The board met at the CGCC Indian Creek campus in Hood River.
Board member Stu Watson made a motion, seconded by Gamez, and after a short, heart-felt discussion, the board approved Resolution 031417, a “Declaration of Open Access and Protection.” Board Chair Charlotte Arnold cried as she read the resolution aloud. “It is our moral imperative to stand up for what is right,” Arnold said during board discussion.
When the vote was complete, the audience of 50 or so people loudly applauded.
The vote was unanimous, and CGCC President Frank Toda, who was originally opposed to the resolution, added his strong support, speaking emotionally of prejudice seen as a child growing up in The Dalles. His parents, Frank and Margaret Toda, had met while interned at Tule Lake Camp in California.
He said he had been moved by testimony from students at two hearings on the resolution in The Dalles and Hood River in March and April, and by a three-hour conversation with CGCC counselor Ryan Brusco, who called on Toda to harken to his experiences as an Asian-American. “My mind has been changed,” Toda said, wiping tears away. “I felt fear and it brought back memories.
“Sanctuary is more than a word,” Toda said. “It means we are all together, that a step toward sanctuary is a step away from fear.”
The board’s resolution notes that “(while) the term ‘sanctuary college’ has no legal status and does not confer legal protection to students or their families, it nonetheless offers a powerful statement of support to some of our most vulnerable students and their families at this time.”
“We are so grateful to the board. We know at the beginning a lot of people did not want this,” said student Adriana Padilla Smith, who was among those who lobbied in the past six months for the sanctuary resolution.
“Our work paid off,” said student Ivana Ortega. “It shows what can happen when you work together. It shows that we as young people can make a difference.“
With the resolution, the college board affirmed the institution’s compliance with state and federal laws such as the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) laws but also stated its intention to “oppose any change in federal law requiring it to aid the federal government in immigration law enforcement, and, if necessary … will seek its own legal counsel in this effort.”
The decision follows two months of public testimony and workshops on the issue.
CGCC joined the State of Oregon and a growing list of colleges, universities and municipalities adopting sanctuary status over concerns regarding federal immigration policy.
Sanctuary does not change existing college policy, which already offered its students protection in enacting resolution.
“I’ve been touched by the testimony of so many people over the past few months,” Watson said. “Obviously, there are concerns, and it’s going to be played out in the courts. Yet at the end of the day it’s up to us to take sides. I believe in providing a safe place for people to live their lives, and if this helps them do that, let’s do this.”
“They’ll try to cut funding, but it’ll take years to resolve,” predicted Board Member Dr. James Willcox. “The students have to feel safe. That’s the important thing. I’m all for doing it,” he added.
Since the resolution does not change existing policy, college officials do not expect it to threaten federal funding such as Pell Grants, which provided more than $1.34 million in student assistance at CGCC in 2015-16. Nonetheless, the sanctuary movement is working its way through the court system: The Trump administration issued an executive order cutting federal funding to cities declaring themselves as sanctuaries (albeit under terms differing from the college’s declaration). On April 25, a federal judge blocked that order, finding in favor of lawsuits brought by San Francisco and Santa Clara counties.