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‘Feeling stuck? Us too:’ Eight arrested following protest for tuition equality for undocumented students

By Jennifer Calfas, Daily Staff Reporter
and Sam Gringlas , Daily Staff Reporter
and Adam Rubenfire, Managing News Editor
Published April 17, 2013

Led by a University Police officer, Public Policy senior Kevin Mersol-Barg crossed State Street, hands cuffed behind his back. Before entering the squad car, he uttered a few words as chants advocating in-state tuition equality were echoed across the street.

“We won’t rest until tuition equality is passed,” he said.

Mersol-Barg — who is a columnist at The Michigan Daily — was one of eight protesters arrested after blocking traffic for around 30 minutes outside the Michigan Union at State Street and South University Avenue. About 40 people originally impeded traffic, though many retreated as officers from the University and Ann Arbor Police Departments approached. The arrested include six University students.

In a protest organized by One Michigan — a Detroit-based organization led by undocumented youth and allies — students and community members gathered in front of the Union to call attention to University policy on undocumented students’ tuition rates. A press release for the demonstration said students were “risking arrest” to demand in-state rates for Michigan’s undocumented residents.

At about $12,000 per year, in-state tuition is nearly $28,000 less than out-of-state rates.

One of the protestors, Marisol Ramos, a Public Policy and Education graduate student, said although previous protests were successful in making the issue salient, they were not able to achieve tangible action within the past year.

“It’s our first opportunity for the more confrontational tactic,” Ramo said. “We’re hoping this action creates a sense of urgency in the same way this issue is urgent to undocumented immigrants living in the state and across the country.”

Ramos was later arrested.

Members of the University’s Coalition for Tuition Equality participated in the event to support One Michigan, although the two groups are not affiliated. The event occurred as administrators continue to discuss possible changes to University residency policy.

University Police spokeswoman Diane Brown said the UMPD dispatch center received several calls at about 6:28 p.m. — including one from a University bus driver — after the students went into the street.

"Several chose to comply, and these eight got arrested," Brown said. "They were very cooperative — they were arrested, brought to our office, processed and released."

Brown said charges against the students won't be clear until prosecutors review the case, but could include disorderly conduct, disobeying a police officer or impeding traffic. When asked whether prosecutors could choose to dismiss the case, she said it's “possible, but hard to say,” noting that the students were clearly disobeying the law.

“They're making a statement, they get the consequences,” Brown said.

Brown could not speak to whether the students could face consequences from the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, the Office of the Dean of Students or any other non-law-enforcement disciplinary agency, but said UMPD does not serve as a complainant to those units.

Brown said today's protest will not likely affect security at the April 18 University Board of Regents meeting, as a security plan has already been put in place, despite reports that groups will demonstrate at that meeting.

The most recent large-scale arrest of student protesters occurred in 2007, when 12 students were arrested for refusing to leave the office of University President Mary Sue Coleman. The students wanted Coleman to implement stricter labor standards for companies that produce Univesity-licensed apparel. Similar to today, students were released that night after being processed at DPS headquarters.

Prior to the event, Mersol-Barg said CTE is “humbled” to “stand in solidarity” with One Michigan, as echoed in a statement from CTE in support of the nonviolent civil disobedience.

Before taking to the streets, three local youth said they were unable to attend the University due to the tuition policy shared their stories to inspire the crowd before the march.

Javier Contreras, a senior at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor, was admitted to the University but remains unsure if he can attend due to the high cost as an undocumented student. Contreras was born in Mexico, but has lived in the city since he was four years old.

“It astonishes me that this so-called prestigious institute refuses to give some of the great minds of the future a chance to succeed,” Contreras said. “The time is now for the University of Michigan to pass tuition equality.”

As an undocumented resident of Michigan, Contreras was unable to go to Europe with his high school or to get a driver’s license. Upon acceptance to the University, Contreras said his excitement immediately dwindled upon realizing he wouldn’t be able to afford tuition.

University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said the protesters’ approach will not likely impede administrator’s discussions with CTE.

“The University absolutely respects the rights to protest and express their views,” Cunningham said.

After the speakers shared their stories, the protesters marched to President Coleman’s house on South University Avenue, shouting, “Education not segregation.”

When protesters moved to the intersection of State Street and South University Avenue, immediately clogging traffic, horns blared and drivers yelled out car windows. Some drivers supported the protest, but yelled for them to clear the road.

As she put her car in park, a driver stalled by the protest said she wasn’t in a rush.

“I’m a little bit frustrated; I totally support what they’re doing,” she said. “I just don’t really know what to do right now. I almost got out of my car and stood with them.”

The driver added that it seemed the protest signs which alluded to the feeling of undocumented students feeling “stuck,” mirrored the unpassable position of the drivers.

For about 10 minutes, the first officers on the scene directed traffic around the protestors. As more University Police and Ann Arbor Police approached the group, protesters moved to the sidewalk to avoid being arrested while some — included the eight arrested — sat in the street, waiting to be handcuffed.

Before getting arrested, LSA junior Ramiro Alvarez said he believes the University should address the tuition issue with urgency.

“I just think it’s absurd,” Alvarez said. “I’ll risk whatever privilege I have for their sake because I have family who can’t come here because of this.”

Social Work alum Marcha Valabez held her spot on the corner of the white, decorated cloth protesters sat on as officers went around to each person asking if they were sure they wanted to go through with an arrest. As each protester nodded, the officer provided a pat on the shoulders before clicking on handcuffs.

“I was nervous at first, I was hesitant at first. But at the end of the day, I’m not afraid, because there are kids and families living in fear everyday of getting taken away,” Valabez said.

Thirty seconds later, Valabez was handcuffed and led to a nearby squad car.

At UMPD headquarters, the arrested individuals were greeted by a crowd of proud supporters and representatives from the National Lawyers Guild, who observed the event to ensure that the students’ legal rights were being respected.

LSA senior Luz Meza said she took the arrest for the thousands of undocumented students who are not able to attend the University and other institutions that do not offer in-state tuition to them.

"I would do it again if I had to," Meza said. "Knowing that I’m here at the University and that I'm able to lobby the University while other students who don't have the opportunity to come here, I feel extremely privileged."

Meza was concerned about the idea of having a criminal record, but said it was outweighed by the benefits.

"I think we all worried about that, but what is my career when other people can't have one?" Meza said.

LSA freshman Ryne Menhennick was the lone first-year student arrested in the group.

"I think that civil disobedience is a respectable thing," Menhennick said, adding that his parents would probably be proud of his actions.

Mersol-Barg, co-founder of the Coalition for Tuition Equality and a past Central Student Government presidential candidate, said he was proud to be arrested for an issue he has fought for a significant amount of his time here at the University.

"I would do it again, because until the University ends its discriminatory policies towards undocumented students, I can't stand for them. I'm going to sit down and protest for however long it takes," Mersol-Barg said.

Mersol-Barg said the fact that campus leaders like himself were willing to be arrested in protest of the University administration should show the urgency of the issue.

"Mary Sue Coleman is going to have a lot harder time saying no to someone that I think people look to — I have a lot of credibility in the campus community," he said.

The Coalition for Tuition Equality has been active since it began in fall 2011, but hasn't taken as radical of a step as One Michigan did with Wednesday's disruptive protest. Mersol-Barg said he was impressed but not surprised by One Michigan's initiative.

"They are across the nation protesting these really obscene policies," Mersol-Barg said. "I'm just humbled by the fact that they've organized here on campus and that I had an opportunity to sit with them."

Alvarez, the next leader of the Coalition for Queer People of Color at the University, became a U.S. citizen in 2009 and enrolled in the University in 2010. For him, the protest was personal.

"I was really lucky, in that year, to get my papers together," Romero said. "But if that wasn't the case, I wouldn't be here."

Alvarez hopes the protest sent a message to the Board of Regents and the people of the state of Michigan about the urgency of enacting tuition equality.

“If people are this pissed off and this willing to wage the privileges they have ... it's finals time — I'm busy, I have things to do, but this is worth that time. I hope it makes a statement," he said.

"I understand that the University is taking a big risk by allowing undocumented students to come, but this is an issue of humanity, and it's absolutely racist, discriminatory, elitist and classist, to not allow someone that's been in Michigan almost their entire life access to one of the most amazing institutions in the world."

LSA seniorYonah Lieberman — who is a former Daily columnist — said today's protest should show Coleman and the regents that action needs to be taken.

"It shows how dramatic the issue is, how urgent the issue is," Lieberman said, noting that if the regents pass tuition equality tomorrow, Contreras — the Skyline High School senior— would be able to attend the University.

"Every single day that we don't have tuition equality is a day that students like Javier are forced to pay out-of-state tuition and are effectively barred from the University of Michigan," Lieberman added.

Though his arrest could be noticed in future job interviews, Lieberman said he's not concerned about what problems the arrest might cause.

"The struggles that I might face for having this on my record are nothing compared to the struggles of the 29,000 undocumented students who are desperate to come to this University or their families, who are everyday worried about getting raided by (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement)," Lieberman said.

When asked what he would say to Coleman, Lieberman said she needs to publicly support tuition equality.

"She knows that's the right thing to do," Lieberman said. "She knows that if she supported it, the regents would support it. So I would tell her that the time has come for you to come out and tell us and tell the world and tell these 29,000 undocumented students that tuition equality is the right thing to do, the just thing to do and the thing that the University should do to be the Leaders and the Best."