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Can Immigration Agents Arrest Students On College Campuses?

Immigration lawyer Lisa Ramirez gives a workshop at Fullerton College about immigration agent's ability to arrest undocumented people in a college's public spaces. (Photo by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)
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Despite the Trump administration's crackdown on unauthorized immigrants, federal agents have refrained from going onto California's college campuses in search of students in the country illegally.

But immigrant advocates say they can't be sure whether that policy will last, so this week more than 40 community colleges and organizations hosted events around the state for "Undocumented Student Week of Action," an effort to disseminate information about a variety of topics, including the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on college campuses.


"We actually have ICE come pretty often to colleges," said Cal State Fullerton junior Diana Blanco, speaking at one such event on Tuesday at Fullerton College.

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She added that the agents aren't looking for unauthorized immigrants to apprehend. "They come to the [job] fairs" to tout the benefits of working for ICE or Customs and Border Protection, said Blanco, an unauthorized immigrant herself.

But their presence can create fear and anxiety among unauthorized immigrant students, she said.

Still, Blanco is confident that immigration agents won't come on campus to approach her or other students in the country illegally. She's read the statements from leaders of California's community colleges, the University of California, and California State University systems saying that despite rising immigration enforcement, their campuses are safe for students in the country illegally.

"There's no reason for [ICE agents] to ask for your papers," Blanco said.


But Blanco might be partly mistaken. In a nearby workshop, an immigration lawyer told students that's not entirely accurate, especially if an agent is in a public space at the college and begins talking to students.

"If someone volunteers information -- they're undocumented, or they don't have legal status -- then they will use that information to apprehend that individual," said Lisa Ramirez, a partner with U.S. Immigration Law Group.

Here's what ICE agents can and can't do, information she shares with students and college employees in the workshop:

  • ICE agents can enter a public or private college's public spaces without prior notice. These spaces include dining areas, parking lots, lobbies and waiting areas.
  • ICE agents don't have the authority to stop, question or arrest just anyone in those public areas. They need a warrant signed by a judge to question people about their immigration status.
  • Agents can't enter private spaces -- like offices and classrooms -- without permission or a judicial warrant.

While Ramirez, college administrators, and unauthorized immigrant student leaders said they knew of no recent cases of federal immigration raids on California college campuses, most of the people interviewed at the event on Tuesday said it wouldn't surprise them if ICE began carrying out enforcement actions on campuses.
The arrest of a Cal State Los Angeles studentoutside her Boyle Heights home last year led unauthorized immigrant student leaders to wonder whether ICE agents would target college students and come onto campus.

ICE has said that colleges are on a list of "sensitive locations" that should be avoided by agents unless their supervisors give them prior approval.

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You'd think that learning that ICE agents can arrest unauthorized immigrant students on college campuses would unnerve some of those who attended Ramirez's workshop.

"I wasn't too scared before and I'm probably even less scared now," said Fullerton College student Alexis, who asked to keep his last name private because he's in the U.S. illegally.

He's comforted by how much effort administrators and other college employees are putting into protecting students like him.

The North Orange County Community College District, which oversees Fullerton College, has adopted protocols for how campus employees should deal with immigration agents on campus.

Fullerton College is in the process of using a private grant to train all employees and students about these protocols.

"What we can certainly control or influence is the information that we provide for students, faculty and staff to be aware of their rights so that they don't engage or are misled by ICE," said Sylvia Pimentel, a Fullerton College counselor and organizer of the Week of Action.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the funding source to train employees and students.

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