By JEFF ZALESIN
Pomona College fired 17 staff members yesterday, after those employees were unable to meet the college’s deadline for submitting updated work authorization documents. The terminations, which most directly affected dining services employees, marked the end of a three-week verification process that has provoked outrage from many organizations and individuals, both within and beyond the Claremont Colleges.
Demonstrations against the college’s actions are expected to continue into the weekend, as two of the community’s most visible groups of protesters signaled that they would keep up their efforts. An impromptu alliance called the Concerned Students of Pomona College has continued to hold a vigil outside Alexander Hall, where some students spend their nights in tents. Meanwhile, members and supporters of Workers for Justice (WFJ), the pro-union group of dining hall workers, have called for a boycott of Frary Dining Hall through today.
All meals at Frank Dining Hall have been cancelled from today through Sunday because of the “logistics of providing service,” Director of Media Relations Cynthia Peters wrote in an e-mail to The Student Life.
“We recognize that the action that the college has taken is something that has been detrimental to our sense of community here on campus, and we’re trying to do everything we can to re-establish the strength of the bonds that we have,” said Davis Saul PO ’14, a participant in the Alexander Hall vigil, who also said he supports WFJ.
Also on Thursday, Scripps College President Lori Bettison-Varga told the Scripps community in an e-mail that she had halted an attempt to reverify work documents for seven of her college’s employees this week. Bettison-Varga was not available for comment on whether her decision was related to recent events at Pomona.
Pomona administrators have described the document checks and firings as part of a series of legal obligations, triggered earlier this year by a complaint to the Board of Trustees that accused President David Oxtoby and his administration of illegal hiring practices. According to an e-mail to the Pomona community from Paul Efron PO ’76, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, an external audit cleared the administration of illegal practices but also revealed deficiencies in the files of 84 employees, which the college was legally required to investigate.
“We agree that the College and some of its employees have been placed in a difficult and unfortunate situation, which we wish could have been avoided,” Efron wrote. “However, while many of us believe that the country’s immigration policies are in need of reform, it is important to emphasize to the Pomona community that the College has a responsibility to comply with the current laws.”
University of Utah law professor Michael Teter PO ’99, who recently taught at Pomona as Visiting Professor of Politics, challenged Efron’s legal reasoning in an open letter to the Board of Trustees.
“The decision to conduct an audit of the I-9s demonstrates, at best, overzealousness and, at worst, a fundamental disregard for the dignity and privacy of every employee,” Teter wrote. “To seek to justify the College’s actions by referring to a discredited allegation and to federal law is disingenuous.”
Teter added that the college may have exposed itself to new legal risks through its handling of employment documentation. In addition to initiating “intrusive and arbitrary verifications,” he wrote, Pomona “may also have violated the National Labor Relations Act.”
Teter also wrote that the likelihood of intervention by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office (ICE) “turns out to be more imagined than real,” since Pomona is not the type of employer that is likely to draw attention from the federal agency. At a faculty meeting on Nov. 16, Oxtoby defended the administration’s decision to set a Dec. 1 deadline for documentation updates by suggesting that a longer process could lead to unwanted involvement by ICE.
Peters, the Pomona spokesperson, wrote in an e-mail to TSL that the college’s actions were legally necessary, despite Teter’s observation about ICE’s track record.
“The law is clear on this matter,” Peters wrote. “Speculation about the likelihood of ‘getting caught’ is not a legitimate factor in deciding whether the College will comply with the law.”
Peters added that Oxtoby and the Board of Trustees had agreed to keep the Dec. 1 deadline in place, even as many community members called for the deadline to be pushed back.
“The College determined that the time provided was reasonable and provided sufficient time for affected employees to gather their documents,” she wrote. “In addition, Human Resources made clear to the employees that it was willing to be flexible in any case where an employee needed additional time in order to resolve a specific and resolvable issue.”
The deadline, however, has been widely criticized for allowing too little time.
“Because [the Department of Homeland Security] is not involved, I think the college has quite a bit of leeway in terms of how much time they give their workers,” said Lourdes Haley PO ’01, an immigration lawyer who provided pro bono service to some Pomona employees. “There have been companies who have given their workers a year to resolve some of these issues.”
As late as Tuesday, some employees said they were unsure about what documentation problem the administration was asking them to fix. One dining hall worker said that he had not received specific instructions from the Office of Human Resources, and even his lawyer was unable to resolve the confusion.
“The lawyers said, ‘You have everything they need to provide you with a job. Why are they asking for more info, or to reverify this info?’ ” the worker said.
Many students also said they felt confused and frustrated this week, especially because it has proven difficult to get in touch with the Board of Trustees.
“We feel that they have undue influence over what we do and that we somehow need to create a more open and accessible channel of communication with them,” vigil participant Kelly Park PO ’12 said of the trustees. “We’re going to be here as long as it takes for that idea to be communicated, and possibly for trustees to respond in kind to us.”
While the vigil shares some central goals and supporters with WFJ, the two groups are not affiliated and have used different tactics to promote their views.
“We’re maintaining a commitment to staying a relatively quiet space, to maintaining a peaceful and non-violent space, so we’re not going to be storming into Alexander anytime soon,” Sarah Applebaum PO ’12 said of the vigil. A WFJ rally entered Alexander Hall on Monday and supporters directly approached Oxtoby to ask him to extend the Dec. 1 deadline.
A few individuals have also accused WFJ supporters of using intimidation to keep students from breaking dining hall boycotts.
“They were bullying me, essentially, by telling me that what I was doing was morally wrong,” said Kristina McOmber PO ’12, who held up a sign next to WFJ organizers outside Frary on Thursday in protest to their demonstration. “I was just disappointed in the behavior of my fellow students for trying to shame me for protecting my first right as a student in the handbook, which is the right to reasonable quiet.”
Members and supporters of WFJ plan to protest the terminations at Frary today.
Ian Gallogly and Maya Booth contributed reporting for this article.