College Students Vote to Provide Refugee Havens

Times Staff Writer

Pomona and Pitzer College students have voted to join their peers at nine other West Coast campuses and help provide sanctuary for the estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Central American refugees living in the United States.

In separate ballots, students on the two campuses have passed resolutions pledging to support local refugee centers and a refugee bail fund, and if need be, to provide refugees temporary off-campus housing. The resolutions also declare that no college funds or college housing will be used to harbor or transport refugees.

"I think it's a responsible statement," said Robert Voelkel, dean of Pomona College. "I think it's good for students to consider issues like this, as long as they don't commit the resources of the college." Pomona and Pitzer officials said they can neither condone or reject the resolutions.

Viewed as Symbolic

Pomona Dean of Students Richard Fass said he viewed the resolutions as a symbolic "expression of support for a significant human rights issue."

But at a Tuesday press conference in Los Angeles, Michael Teahan, a Pitzer sanctuary organizer, said the resolutions are more than symbolic. Teahan, a senior, said students at both campuses will raise funds to rent a house in Claremont where refugees can stay.

More important, said Mary Searcy, a Pomona senior, the resolutions passed by students at the two colleges--which are among the five Claremont colleges--are the first on college campuses to be based on an untested legal argument that refugees are protected under provisions of the Geneva Convention and international humanitarian law.

Pomona's students voted last week to adopt a sanctuary measure. About 43% of Pomona's 1,350-member student body voted. Pitzer students passed a similar measure April 15. About 55% of Pitzer's 850 students voted. Both resolutions were approved by more than 80% of those voting.

Clearinghouse in Riverside

Besides the Claremont campuses, student governments at eight University of California and California State University campuses, including UC Riverside, UC Irvine, UCLA and Cal State Northridge, have passed sanctuary resolutions, said Kenneth Kwong of the Campus Sanctuary Network--a UC Riverside-based clearinghouse for the student sanctuary movement. Kwong said the University of Colorado at Boulder is the only school outside California to approve such a measure.

Searcy said, however, that Pomona's and Pitzer's resolutions differ greatly from other sanctuary measures. Kwong agreed, saying the Claremont resolutions are the only ones based on the Geneva Convention.

Simply put, the resolutions contend that the Geneva Convention of 1949 and 1977, of which the United States is a signatory, makes it illegal for the U.S. government to deny entry to Central Americans who are fleeing human rights violations or civil war in their native countries. The resolutions also contend that the government cannot stop U.S. citizens from providing sanctuary to these refugees.

'Upholding International Law'

"What we are doing is neither illegal nor an act of civil disobedience," Searcy said. "We are upholding international law. We call upon our government to do the same."

But Joe Flanders, an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spokesman, said that until these issues are settled in court, students who plan to provide even temporary off-campus housing to illegal aliens may end up violating the law.

Flanders said it is a felony to smuggle, harbor or transport illegal aliens, or to conspire to do so. Although the INS has a policy of not raiding schools or churches, he said the agency reserves the right to go after illegal aliens wherever they are sheltered.

Searcy said the legal arguments for the sanctuary movement in the past have been based on the constitutional protection of freedom of religion and on the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980. The latter grants political asylum to any illegal alien who proves that deportation to his or her country of origin would mean certain persecution or death.

Bid to Overturn Convictions

The legal issues raised by the Pomona and Pitzer resolutions are based on friend-of-the-court briefs filed by lawyer Karen Parker in a bid to overturn the convictions of sanctuary workers Stacey Merkt and Jack Elder. Merkt and Elder were sentenced in a Houston federal court in February for conspiring to smuggle Salvadorans into Texas. Merkt faces a five-year sentence, Elder a 30-year sentence. The appeals are scheduled to be heard on May 9th in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans.

Parker, who represents Human Rights Advocates Inc., a San Francisco-based a human rights group recognized by the United Nations, said in a telephone interview that she developed her argument in a report presented to the U.N. special representative for El Salvador, Jose Antonio Pastor Ridruejo.

The key test for Parker will come when federal judges in several sanctuary cases, including the Merkt and Elder appeal, rule on the admissibility of her Geneva Convention argument. (Parker said she has also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Los Angeles deportation trial of a Salvadoran refugee slated for Wednesday.)

She said her argument rests on the international legal concept of nonrefoulement, a French term meaning that refugees cannot be returned to their native country until all armed conflict or human rights violations have ceased. Under this concept, she said, refugees are defined as persons fleeing nations where armed conflict or human rights abuses are occurring, regardless of what national borders the refugees have crossed.

Human Rights Abuses

Parker contends that a refugee need not prove the danger of persecution or death if repatriated, as in the 1980 Refugee Act. All that the Geneva Convention requires, she said, is that international bodies like the U.N. recognize human rights abuses or the presence of armed conflict in the refugee's native country.

Parker said the U.N. Commission on Human Rights has put both El Salvador and Guatemala on its list of chronic human rights violators. A ruling in favor of her argument, she said, could set a major legal precedent by allowing refugees to file class action suits against the Immigration and Naturalization Service for deporting them to El Salvador or Guatemala.

But Victor Rostow, associate general counsel for the INS in Washington, D.C., disagrees: "As a matter of legal theory, (Parker's argument) is a novel and interesting one. But in terms of legal practice, it just isn't" an issue, he said.

Federal judges can rule only on matters of federal law, Rostow said. Thus, Rostow said, Parker's argument cannot be heard in a federal court because Congress has not passed any law providing a legal instrument for executing the Geneva Convention's blanket definition of refugee.

1980 Refugee Act

Rostow claimed that the only law the federal judges can use to decide cases like the Merkt and Elder appeal is the 1980 refugee act. He said Congress, which used the Geneva Convention as the basis of its act, narrowed the definition of refugee as a practical way of restricting the entry of illegal aliens into the country.

But in her Merkt brief, Parker wrote, "Under United States law, the United States is bound to comply with the terms of these treaties" ratified by Congress, even if Congress has provided no instrument for their implementation.

The INS's Flander said that depending on the circumstances, students or faculty who provide, or who conspire to provide, even temporary shelter to illegal aliens may be committing violations punishable by up to five years in jail and as much as a $10,000 fine.

Pro-sanctuary leader Teahan said students are willing to take that risk. "All we have ever desired," he said, "is to provide humanitarian aid to refugees" escaping Guatemala's death squads and the war in El Salvador, which, according to human rights observers, has claimed more than 40,000 victims since 1979.

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