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Students, faculty, former workers divided over firing of undocumented workers at Pomona

Two months after Pomona College fired 17 undocumented employees, students and kitchen workers are still demanding their old jobs back and hoping to start a union.

Pomona College President David Oxtoby has spent a lot of time defending the firings, but he has always insisted he was only following the law.

“The rules, the laws are pretty straightforward and strict," he said, sitting in his campus office. "If you have any inadequacy, anything deficient in work authorization documents, you have to get that corrected. So that is what happened in the fall.”

It all started with complaints about lax hiring practices that reached Pomona College's board of trustees. The school hired an outside firm, which found 17 workers - 16 of them in the kitchen - who were without legal documents.

Oxtoby admitted he was conflicted over the decision to terminate the employees.

"One thing that has been suggested is that we should simply as a college say, ‘this is an unjust law and we are not going to obey it'," he said. "And we certainly did consider that possibility. That would be civil disobedience for a college. To me, however, that is something that an individual can make a decision on.”

In other words, Oxtoby felt he could not assume everyone at the college would support keeping the undocumented workers.

Pomona is part of the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of seven institutions that share a large campus but are individually governed. None of the other schools investigated their workers’ status. Nearby Scripps College’s president said there was no reason for a similar probe at her school.

But on the eve of the firings, support for retaining the workers was overwhelming, especially among Pomona College students. The campus newspaper has kept the issue on its front page for months, documenting a series of meetings, protests, and hunger strikes. A recent mural on campus portrayed the 17 workers; painted below them are the words “December 1st”—the day they were fired.

A sophomore who wouldn't give his name said the firings resonated with Pomona College’s many Latino students - some of them immigrants, some, even undocumented.

"What the school does not know is how many people it affects on the outside," he said, referring to the decision to fire all 17 employees. "It’s one fired worker, but are they married, do they have kids? Are they supporting someone else?”

Many of those fired last December had been working for Pomona College for a long time. One man had been there continuously for 23 years. When asked to speak about those workers, Pomona College Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson seemed visibly upset.

“These were people that knew our campus well," said Sisson. "A couple of them had been very recently promoted under our management. It was just a personal tragedy, people we knew. And it still is, a lingering tragedy.”

Twenty miles east of Pomona College is a working-class neighborhood that's home to many Latino families. Twenty-five year-old Christian Torres lives there for now. He lost his campus job as a cook last December, and one of his coworkers has allowed him to stay here until he can find new employment.

“We felt very bad," said Torres, recalling his first reaction to the news. "So many years, you know, working there, giving our lives? And we thought, it was Pomona, one of the most prestigious colleges, one of the richest. They wouldn’t do that; they wouldn’t act as a corporation.”

Torres and the others were given three weeks to prove they could legally work. But he couldn’t provide the right documents and was asked to leave. He had worked there for seven years, washing dishes and cooking. In 2010, Torres began organizing dining hall workers - 70 of them. He said that even though he was fired, the college has taken solid steps to reward low-skill workers.

"It’s true," he said. "They made some changes, big changes for the workers. But why? Because we started organizing.”

Pomona College offers health insurance, full-time contracts, and annual wage increases for kitchen workers. But less than half of the 17 positions vacated in December have been filled. When asked about this, Treasurer Karen Sisson said it has been difficult to find qualified candidates without criminal records. So Torres remains hopeful that school administrators will eventually change their minds and take him and the others back.

“I want the college to give the opportunity to the workers to decide by themselves if they want to form a union," he said. "And a way for us to get back to work.”

For the time being, Torres is looking for work nearby. But having no proper immigration documents, no car, and no high school diploma, his chances remain slim.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously referred to the president of Scripps College, Lori Bettison-Varga, as "he."