Tensions escalated this week at UC Merced after a conservative student club demonstrated on campus, carrying homemade signs encouraging people to report undocumented immigrants.
UC Merced’s College Republican club held up signs on campus that read “ICE ICE Baby” and on the back included the number for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Another sign read “I Love Undocumented Firearms."
In a statement sent to students and faculty, UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland said the signs from the College Republicans “disturbed many of us.”
“It troubles me to think that some in our Bobcat family would wish harm upon them and that through their speech, they would deliberately introduce added stress and anxiety into their fellow students’ lives,” Leland said in the statement.
Leland went on to say the signs violated UC Merced’s Principles of Community, which promote inclusion and “cultivating a campus climate rooted in mutual respect and compassion,” the principles say.
The signs were “clearly intended to create an unwelcome environment for our nearly 600 undocumented students,” Leland said.
However, the chancellor also said the club has the First-Amendment right to express their political views even “if others would consider them offensive or harmful.”
“UC Merced remains committed to doing everything in its power to enable our undocumented students to pursue their education,” Leland said. “Like so many of our dedicated students, they are remarkable individuals with remarkable stories.”
Devon Hunter, the 20-year-old UC Merced student who held up the sign with the number to ICE, said he can understand how the sign might offend some, but said it was “supposed to be controversial and draw them in.”
Hunter, an economics student, said the University of California system wants to put “boundaries” on free speech.
“It’s all well and good until people take offense to it,” he told the Sun-Star in a phone interview. “We want to make sure they (signs) hit close to home to show people this is the United States and we have the First Amendment here to protect statements that are unpopular.”
Harrison Duran, president of the College Republican Club, said the intention was to “start a dialogue on campus.” He said members of the club don’t believe people should reside in the country illegally but have different views on policy.
“I understand the material can be upsetting to certain people and they can disagree with it,” the 21-year-old ecology and evolutionary biology student said.
Some students organized a counter-protest in front of their tables Tuesday.
They chanted "education not deportation" and "say it loud say it clear immigrants are welcome here," said Christina Acosta, a 31-year-old Ph.D. student who participated in the protest. Acosta said it’s important for the hundreds of undocumented UC Merced students to know they have support on campus.
“I think it’s just really important to let them know that this won’t stand. We won’t allow this kind of hatred to stand,” Acosta said.
Acosta, who also is a teacher's assistant, said she’s seen how the current discussion around immigration policy can be a stressful distraction that interferes with education.
“How many students walk by there and were traumatized by that?” Acosta questioned.
The Republican club’s advisor, Phillip Cunningham, said he personally wouldn’t have drawn the signs carried by some club members, but said he “supports their right to do it and get the conversation going which is what we wanted.”
“I can see how some people could find offensive or provocative,” Cunningham added. “I don’t necessarily agree that it’s threatening.”
Monica Velez: 209-385-2485, @monicavelez21