To conservative commentators, they were proof of a “snowflake culture” that thrives on college campuses, guilty of harassing people whose views they disagreed with and blocking their constitutional right to free speech.
Now, two students at the University of Arizona who protested Border Patrol agents at a campus event on March 19 are going to face criminal charges, the university’s president said.
“The student club and the CBP officers invited by the students should have been able to hold their meeting without disruption,” University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins wrote in a letter to the campus community on Friday. “Student protest is protected by our support for free speech, but disruption is not.”
Videos of the confrontation, which were published in conservative media outlets in late March, show two officers in green uniforms standing at the front of a classroom, where they were giving a presentation to students interested in criminal justice careers. Earlier that day, Border Patrol agents had been recruiting on the Tucson campus during a career fair, according to the Daily Wildcat, the university’s student newspaper.
“They allow murderers to be on campus, where I pay to be here,” a young woman, who appears to be filming the officers through a door that has been left slightly ajar, says loudly. She continues, “This is supposed to be a safe space for students, but they allow an extension of the KKK into campus.”
One Border Patrol officer looks up, but doesn’t respond. “How about you talk about slashing water? How about you talk about taking the shoes off migrants, letting them walk through the desert barefoot?” the young woman asks. “How about you talk about all the graves of unidentified folks?”
The president of the Criminal Justice Association, the student group that organized the event, informs the woman that she’s welcome to sit in on the presentation. She responds that she doesn’t feel safe and that they should hold their meetings elsewhere. The club leader then says she is going to call the campus police.
A second clip shows the agents leaving the classroom. Multiple students can be heard following them down a hallway and into a parking garage, chanting “Murder Patrol” over and over again, and yelling, “You’re not welcome here,” as the agents get into their car and drive away. It’s unclear how much time elapsed between the two videos.
Describing the incident as “a dramatic departure from our expectations of respectful behavior and support for free speech on this campus,” Robbins said in his Friday letter that the university’s police department plans to charge the students with interfering with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months of jail time.
Campus police are continuing to investigate to see whether there were any other criminal violations, he added, and the Office of the Dean of Students is also looking into whether the student code of conduct was violated.
According to the Arizona Republic, no charges had been filed as of Monday evening. The University of Arizona Police Department couldn’t immediately be reached for comment about the delay.
Officials have yet to name the two students. In March, a Mexican American studies major who asked to be identified only as Denisse told the Daily Wildcat that she had led the protests.
“I walked out of class and saw two Border Patrol agents in the hallway in Modern Languages, and I was like, ‘You’re supposed to be at the career fair that ended an hour ago,’” she said. “So then I was like, ‘Get out,’ and started chanting, disrupting that space until they left. Literally walked them all the way to their cars until they left.”
She noted that Border Patrol agents had detained a 12-year-old girl and her parents that same day, suspecting that they were in the country illegally. The arrest, which took place in a residential neighborhood not far from the university, was protested by Tucson residents who said that the girl had been recovering from an illness and vomited when she was being taken into custody.
“You allow Border Patrol on campus, and a few hours later, a few miles from campus, a whole family is detained on a routine stop and taken,” Denisse told the Daily Wildcat.
Videos of her disrupting the presentation quickly gained traction with conservative sites like Breitbart, the Daily Wire and Campus Reform, all of which wrote that students had “harassed” Border Patrol agents. Judicial Watch, a conservative legal watchdog group, filed a complaint with the University of Arizona, alleging that she had committed various infractions including stalking and disorderly conduct. In a March interview with talk radio station KFYI, National Border Patrol Council Vice President Art Del Cueto asked if she was actually paying to attend the university like she had said, “or if she’s there on some kind of grant.”
“I’m amazed that this individual was allowed to do this,” he said. “I’m a little upset because I know that the University of Arizona police department was called, and I don’t understand how nothing was done there.” Plenty of Border Patrol agents in the surrounding area regularly attend Wildcats games or are paying for their kids to attend Arizona, he added.
The week after his interview aired, a spokeswoman for the university told the Arizona Daily Star that Robbins had met with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in Tucson to “discuss the issue” and had “reiterated our appreciation for our relationship and their contribution.”
Among students, the reaction to the protests last month was mixed. The day after the confrontation, some held a rally to decry the presence of Border Patrol at recruiting events, according to the Daily Wildcat. That same week, the student body president and other student government leaders declared unannounced visits by the Border Patrol to be “unacceptable.”
But Luisa Pinto, the president of the Criminal Justice Association, told the paper that the disruption had been a violation of her First Amendment rights.
“Her right to free speech only goes so far,” she said of the woman who was filming. “She has every right to scream and yell all she wants outside the building, but the moment she’s inside a building and interfering with our education . . . our rights were violated.”
Pinto told the Daily Wildcat that she was the woman in the video who had invited Denisse to come in, then called the police after Denisse declined. Her goal had simply been to try to defuse tension, she said. She added that the club is strictly apolitical and invites representatives from different law enforcement agencies to speak to members about career opportunities and their hiring processes.
The reaction split along similar lines after Robbins announced last week that university police would press charges. The National Border Patrol Council’s Local 2544, which represents agents in the Tucson area, wrote on Facebook that it wasn’t enough, and that they wanted a public apology. Meanwhile, a coalition of DACA recipients at the university described the forthcoming charges as evidence of “the swiftness with which institutions criminalize people of color,” saying in a statement that protesters had already been “bombarded with threats to their physical and emotional well being.”
The two students who will face charges are “being persecuted,” they wrote.
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