President Bridges Should Get Political

Zach Duffy

This past Sunday, ASWC representatives voted in favor of a resolution supporting the DREAM Act, a Congressional bill that would create a path to legal permanent residency for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. It was the right step for Whitman, which is home to a number of undocumented students who cannot qualify for work study or find employment after graduation without legal status. But for all of the symbolic worth that ASWC’s endorsement has to those students, I’m disappointed that President Bridges and the Whitman administration have chosen not to issue their own statement in favor of the DREAM Act.

There are certain issues which merit public comment by college presidents, and the DREAM Act is one of them. It relates directly to the business of colleges and universities, which is admitting and educating the most capable young people that apply to the institutions. Undocumented students, capable as they may be, face substantial barriers to their college admission as a direct result of their legal status.

Ariel Ruiz ’11, co-author of the ASWC DREAM Act resolution, wrote a report last year examining the higher education aspirations of Latino students at Walla Walla High School as part of Whitman’s “State of the State for Washington Latinos” initiative. He found that as undocumented students at Wa-Hi became more aware of the implications of their legal status, their aspirations to attend college decreased. They lived in fear of deportation from their longtime homes and could not focus on schoolwork. Few resources were available at Wa-Hi to teach undocumented students about the possibilities of attending state public colleges or receiving private financial aid at colleges like Whitman. All too often the result was that students felt as if they could not apply to college at all.

Ruiz’s research illustrates the potential of the DREAM Act to alter the lives of thousands of young people in Eastern Washington. Walla Walla County is itself 19 percent Latino; Wa-Hi is over 30 percent Latino; nearby Adams County is 57.9 percent Latino. With the conditional legal status granted by the DREAM Act, students like those in Ruiz’s study would no longer have any reason to temper their ambitions to go to college or succeed in school. A statement in support of the DREAM Act from the Whitman administration would therefore not simply be a statement in support of the abstract principle that undocumented students who are brought to the United States at a young age deserve a path to permanent residency. It would also be a statement in support of the many undocumented students in Eastern Washington who aspire to go to college and serve their country after graduating from high school.

My biggest frustration with the silence of the administration on this issue is that I strongly believe President Bridges appreciates the potential impact that the passage of the DREAM Act could have on the educational futures of undocumented students. His research on the involvement of racial and ethnic minorities in the juvenile justice system suggests a deep understanding of the impact that a person’s status can have on his or her life experiences. The administration’s silence instead appears to stem from a larger sentiment that Whitman’s president should never take a public stance on political issues, no matter how relevant they might be to the student body.

I strongly disagree with that conception of President Bridges’ responsibilities. While a college president should take care not to make students uncomfortable by endorsing politically controversial legislation, measures like the DREAM Act are referendums on the value of people themselves. As the leader of an institution that is home to undocumented students, President Bridges has nothing less than a moral responsibility to affirm their value with public endorsements of legislation that would do the same.

Many college presidents have endorsed the DREAM Act: Dr. Bill V. Flores, president of the University of Houston (downtown campus); Robert J. Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley; Rebecca Chopp, president of Swarthmore College; Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard College; and Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, to name just a few. Now is the time to add President Bridges’s name to that list.