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A Hispanic university student responds to hate on campus: 'I don’t want this to keep happening to my friends'

Pamphlets that urge students to denounce undocumented immigrants, a pro-Trump wall and a truck decorated to appear as the 'border patrol' are just some of the incidents of intimidation that have occurred over the last six months at Washington State University.
7 Mar 2017 – 11:47 AM EST
Eduardo Castañeda, left, collected signatures to express discontent over what many say is a climate of racism on campus. Crédito: Eduardo Castañeda

A month before the presidential election, Washington State University became host to a heated discussion about freedom of expression.

In October, a club of young Republicans on the Pullman, Washington, campus created a giant wall with pro-Trump graffiti, presumably to mimic the candidate's proposed border wall. Though many in the community rejected the display for its intimidating tone, the university maintained that the wall was an exercise in the right to freedom of expression.

Eduardo Castañeda, a 24-year-old American with Mexican parents, was bothered by the university's response.

"What is the thin line between discrimination and a political-academic project?" the 24-year-old asks. "I do not understand the university’s approval of this type of project."

Since then, a number of similar incidents have rattled minorities on the campus and urged students to push for greater protections for undocumented students. Castañeda has become one of the leaders of that fight.

On February 14, fliers appeared around campus urging students to turn in undocumented immigrants. The message said: "A notice to all citizens of the United States of America: It is your civic duty to report any and all illegal aliens to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement … They have broken the law."

Univision News received a report about the fliers through Documenting Hate, a project that is tracking bias incidents and hate crimes around the country since the presidential election.

Univision News reached out to the university's Republican group, but did not receive a response.

Castañeda is not undocumented or an immigrant. But after seeing the fliers, he decided to send a letter to the university’s President, Kirk H. Schulz, demanding a response and a thorough investigation on behalf of the more than 200 undocumented students at the school.

Although he never received a response, Schultz tweeted a message of support for undocumented students:

WSU spokesperson Robert Strenge told Univision News that the language in the fliers was "clearly intended to intimidate undocumented students,” but “would probably be considered constitutionally protected speech."

"We are very sensitive to the difficulties faced by our undocumented students," he added. "And we try to do everything we can to ensure they receive the support they need and deserve."

On February 16, another incident shook the campus: someone labeled a green truck in front of the University the "border patrol" with a fake sign.

After the series of events, Castañeda and other students pressed for school administrators to discuss a proposal that would make WSU a sanctuary of "unjust deportations and intimidation" by immigration officials.

Washington State University would not be the first university to be officially sanctioned as a sanctuary campus. Columbia University, New York University, Wesleyan University, and Connecticut College are just a few of the colleges that have announced plans to offer different types of protection and financial aid to their students, and have made it clear that they will not help federal authorities deport students.

However, there is no legal definition for a sanctuary university, and the protections they can provide to their undocumented students are limited. In the end, federal law has priority over how to define a university.

"Ultimately we have neither the authority nor the ability to protect them from all the political and social changes that occur in the United States," Strenge says.

While awaiting resolution from the university, Castañeda continues to study law and help his undocumented peers.

He says the university environment has been charged since the October incident. Now, some students treat minorities differently, he says, noting that his friends report hearing slurs in passing on campus, such as "undocumented people take money from the United States," or "undocumented immigrants should not be at this university.”

"I do not want this to affect all my friends while the university does nothing," he says. "Right now I'm helping, but I know in my role as a lawyer I'll do even more."