On March 19, Border Patrol officers attended a career fair at the University of Arizona, to potentially recruit students as employees. After the career fair, the Border Patrol agents were invited by the Criminal Justice Association to give another presentation to the group in a classroom on campus. Denisse Moreno Melchor, 20, and Mariel Alexandra Bustamante, 22, along with other students, peacefully protested the presence of Border Patrol at their university, a place they go to learn. As pedagogical research has shown (e.g. Smith 2011), learning can only take place when students are safe, and moreover, feel safe.
In videos of the encounter, Moreno Melchor can be heard saying from outside of the classroom: “This is supposed to be a safe space for students, but they allow an extension of the KKK into campus.” When one of the Border Patrol agents looked at her, Moreno Melchor asked, “How about you talk about slashing water? How about you talk about taking the shoes off migrants, letting them walk through the desert barefoot? How about you talk about all the graves of unidentified folks?” Her poignant questions echo the work of Latinx anthropologists who have documented how Border Patrol officers—and the larger border industrial complex—have systemically inflicted violence upon migrants (Dorsey & Díaz-Barriga 2015; De León 2015; Rosas 2012).
After the incident, the two Chicana women—Moreno Melchor and Bustamante—were charged with class 1 misdemeanors, each carrying a possible sentence of up to six months in prison. Both were charged with interfering with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution, and Moreno Melchor was also charged with making threats and intimidation. A few days later, a third student, Marianna Ariel Coles-Curtis, a 27-year-old graduate student, was also charged with a class 1 misdemeanor.
On March 22 and 29, Robert C. Robbins, the president of University of Arizona, issued a couple of statements. In the latter one, he “reaffirm[ed] the University of Arizona’s relationship with the leadership and the women and men serving in U.S. Customs and Border Protection.” He referred to the protest of the Chicanx students as “a dramatic departure from our expectations of respectful behavior and support for free speech on this campus” and called for additional investigation for criminal violation by Moreno Melchor, Bustamante, and others. He stated, “Student protest is protected by our support for free speech, but disruption is not.”
This begs the question, what is considered “student protest” and what is considered “disruption?” Anthropologists and other scholars (Guerra 2015; Alexander 2010) have long demonstrated that the differentiating factor between what is deemed acceptable behavior versus criminal activity is often skin color, as people of color are criminalized for the very same activities that white Americans are not. Criminalization, then, is used as a tool to maintain white supremacy. In the era of 45, who regularly suggests that all Mexicans are rapists and murderers, Latinx communities are increasingly being criminalized. Latinx youth pose a particular threat to white supremacy. Not only are Latinxs the fastest growing ethnic minority, but also the youngest major racial group, with one third of the population younger than 18 and a quarter of millennial age (Pew Research Center 2016).
The Associated Students of the University of Arizona, a student government organization, released a letter on March 21. They stated that “the presence of the uniformed agents on campus will always be immensely harmful to our DACA and undocumented community.” They also drew attention to the fact that the very same day, just a few miles from campus, border officials arrested and detained a family, including a 12-year-old girl who was ill. She vomited while being taken into custody. On April 2, the Department of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona also released a statement in support of Moreno Melchor and Bustamante, and the right of students to feel safe on campus regardless of citizenship or immigration status. They asked the president to have the charges dropped against Moreno Melchor and Bustamante. And rather than continue to expend resources to investigate the incident, they demanded that the university look into the many death threats made against the two students.
These disturbing occurrences raise vital questions about the criminalization of Latinx students, their right to safety and education, and the reach of the border industrial complex. The Association of Latina/Latino Anthropologists stands in solidarity with Denisse Moreno Melchor, Mariel Alexandra Bustamante, all Latinx students who are deprived of the right to a safe education, and all victims of our unjust immigration system.
Update: Since the writing of this piece, the charges against the students were dropped as a result of the support from the community, students, and faculty at UA.
Andrea Bolivar is an LSA Collegiate Fellow in the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Michigan. Her current project, “‘Somos Una Fantasia‘: Race, Violence, and Potentiality in Transgender Latina Sexual Economies of Labor” ethnographically examines the experiences of sex working transgender Latinas in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Cite as: Bolivar, Andrea. 2019. “Protesting Border Patrol on Campus.” Anthropology News website, May 7, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1161