California students unite against “common enemy” Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano oversaw record numbers of deportations of undocumented persons in the US. 

Wikimedia Commons

The appointment of Janet Napolitano to head the University of California system is being met with fierce opposition by students and faculty across the state. At the same time, student activists organizing for Palestine solidarity are fighting back against repressive measures taken by California state legislators.

During the 2012-2013 school year, seven University of California campuses held votes on divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation. Of those seven, three passed and upheld divestment resolutions. Student activists say that whether votes pass or not, the door of discussion on Palestine has been opened wide.

“Yet over the past year, the California state legislature has taken an increasingly anti-democratic stance against students organizing for universal rights and justice across the state,” says a recent statement posted by Students for Justice in Palestine West, a coalition of Palestine solidarity groups on campus on the West Coast.

They add that on 31 May:

Over 30 legislators from the California State Senate and Assembly signed a letter to the University of California Board of Regents and Chair condemning and discouraging divestment measures on our campuses.

This is not the first time members of the California state legislature have tried to silence student democracy: last summer, the State Assembly passed the HR 35 resolution, which labeled criticism of Israel’s illegal and discriminatory policies against Palestinians as “anti-Semitic” and recommended broad censorship measures of UC students and faculty advocating for Palestinian rights and justice.

From Homeland Security to UC

Meanwhile, Janet Napolitano, the outgoing secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has been appointed as the President of the University of California system. She is due to be confirmed today. 

As the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (and previously as the governor of Arizona), Napolitano oversaw the deportations of countless undocumented families, and served as one of the architects of the so-called Secure Communities (S-COMM) program that deputizes local law enforcement officers as deportation agents.

She also aligned with Israel lobby organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, which has been behind much of the anti-divestment rhetoric in California.

In an op-ed in the Daily Californian, undocumented student Ju Hong writes:

The anti-immigrant S-COMM program and similar initiatives under Napolitano are a big reason that an estimated 1.5 million undocumented immigrants have been deported from the United States.

… In 2009, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents arrested Jesus Gutierrez, a worker at the UC Berkeley Clark Kerr Campus dining commons and a union activist in AFSCME Local 3299. This is one of many stories that show how UC students and employees are directly affected by the S-COMM program.

Currently, there are approximately 2.6 million undocumented immigrants living in the state of California. In the UC system, there are hundreds of undocumented students across the 10 UC campuses. In fact, one in six of all California children have at least one undocumented immigrant parent.

Anti-deportation and immigrant rights activists are collecting signatures to ask the University of California’s governing body, the Regents, not to confirm Napolitano. In a letter, the activists with say that “Secretary Napolitano is the architect of the deportation machine that has resulted in over 1.5 million deportations during President Obama’s tenure … She has no expertise in higher education, only in family separation, and no place in our public university system.”

In addition, the San Diego Faculty Union has written an open letter of concern to the UC Regents, urging the governing body to extend the period of consideration before voting to appoint her today.

The letter states that:

Faculty rightly ask how Secretary Napolitano would respond to expressions of dissent both on and off campus; the balance between free and hate speech; or demands for her to protect the intellectual property rights of faculty … If her nomination were confirmed, Secretary Napolitano would come to UC with experience and skills acquired in the overlapping domains of security, surveillance, intelligence, immigration and border control, and the growing involvement of corporate interests in all of these.

“Building coalitions”

On Wednesday, The Electronic Intifada interviewed Sabreen Shalabi, a graduate of UC Irvine and an organizer with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) West.

The Electronic Intifada: Could you start off by talking about the recent series of repressive acts taken by the California state legislature against Palestine solidarity activism? Talk about the letter that they submitted in May, and then Students for Justice in Palestine’s response.

Sabreen Shalabi: Basically, within the last three or four weeks of school, when students are really busy with finals and whatnot, the Jewish Public Affairs Committee pushed a letter through the legislators asking for signatures. And it was against divestment, and re-affirmed the Regents’ decision saying that they won’t divest from countries that the US doesn’t deem genocidal [that was made] back in 2010 after UC Berkeley’s divestment [vote].

And it gained a lot of signatures, from both Democrats and Republicans and all over the scale. SJP decided to write a response to that, basically telling the Regents that the legislature should stay out of student democracy and not try to repress the whole divestment movement.

EI: Can you remind us a little of some of the background of the kinds of repressive actions in California? Especially HR 35, the resolution that the state assembly passed about a year ago, which conflated Palestine solidarity activism with anti-Semitism. 

SS: The biggest tactic that’s been used across California to repress any kind of Palestine activism is equating any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, which the letter does. And which has been used, as you said, in the past with HR 35 — the resolution that was passed, condemning any speech against Israel.

And this just shows that certain types of students, like especially those doing divestment, have been constantly repressed, constantly put down for the last five or six years. Since Israeli Apartheid Weeks, since criticism of Israel started happening.

EI: Seven University of California campuses presented divestment resolutions this year. So how is the current climate of repressive actions faring against this turning tide within the student activism movement?

SS: Tactics like HR 35 and all of these other things used to repress, like big Israeli lobby groups getting involved in student politics, hasn’t really hindered the divestment movement. It’s been growing a lot, especially in the last year. As you said, seven University of California [campuses] presented divestment resolutions, which was really huge.

Three University of California [campuses] passed them — UC Berkeley, UC Irvine and UC San Diego. And just this morning, the person who sponsored the UC Berkeley divestment bill [Sadia Saifuddin] is now going to be the student Regent designate, which is also a big success for divestment.

So there’s definitely been a tide turning. Despite the letters, or any sort of repression by the state, which are being pressured of course by Israel lobby groups, students have constantly been speaking and now it’s growing into hopefully a statewide movement. Which I hope is going to grow even stronger next year.

EI: Talk about the response by Students for Justice in Palestine West to the California state legislators’ letter a little bit more; and has there been a response to SJP’s response yet?

SS: From what I know, there hasn’t really been a response to our SJP West response. The way we countered [the California legislators’ letter] was that we changed a few words and it kind of dispels everything that they were saying, within everything that they had sent to the Regents, signed by all the legislators.

That was basically how that letter was framed, with an introduction to how SJP groups are being repressed, how this is a limitation to freedom of speech, how this is an interference to student politics and the UC system.

But SJP West has been growing really, really strong in the past two years. And I feel that by our being under constant attack by the state legislators and HR 35, SJP West has been growing into a stronger coalition.

EI: Let’s move into talking about the appointment of Janet Napolitano to head the University of California system as president. What has been the response within student activism groups, especially student groups working on Palestine issues?

SS: Well, it’s a large concern. I personally believe that they couldn’t have chosen anybody worse — her being the secretary of Homeland Security, and the governor of Arizona, and being responsible for the largest amount of deportations in our nation, and aligning herself with all these Israeli lobby groups.

So of course it’s of great concern; and students have planned a huge rally. And it’s a coalition of not just SJPs, but immigration rights groups, DREAMers [supporters of the DREAM Act, which would have provided citizenship to undocumented students], and a bunch of other groups that are in solidarity.

EI: What kind of message does the appointment of Napolitano send to students, especially those working for the rights of undocumented peoples, the rights of Arabs and Muslims at a time when Islamophobia is so prevalent and Palestine activism is under so much scrutiny right now on UC campuses?

SS: The message is that the UC Regents really don’t care about anything the students have been saying for I don’t know how long. Because Janet Napolitano has no experience in education, everything that she’s aligned herself with is everything that students have been against.

And it just shows that the system has been very resistant to all of the activism movements that have been going on, from ethnic studies, to the DREAM Act, to divestment. And it’s going to make things harder.

EI: How are students planning on organizing if Napolitano is confirmed?

SS: The first step is going to be the rally [on Thursday]. Right now, it’s building a coalition against this appointment, and trying to make sure that she doesn’t get the position. If a miracle happens and she doesn’t get the position, that’s good.

But most probably she will, and students are still going to keep the solidarity work going, keep the activism going, making sure that she’s not deporting students. And so students can feel safe on campus — all these issues that she’s going to bring up with her appointment.

EI: And finally, I know that Students for Justice in Palestine has been working very closely with student groups working on immigrant rights issues, and the issues of Latinos and undocumented peoples in California and across the US. How does SJP plan on building those alliances and building that solidarity and support in the coming year?

SS: I feel like Janet Napolitano’s appointment is the biggest point of intersectionality. Because she’s against everything all these groups are doing. So there’s definitely going to be a lot more solidarity work, and there’s going to be a lot more intersectionality with this common enemy.

But our coalitions have been building really strong. Especially with the divestment movement, I feel like a lot of groups have been able to support it, or align themselves with it, or help with it, which has been really nice.

SJP West and SJP [National] are starting to grow into other issues, and looking at the roots of all oppression. If you work from the roots up, people will start seeing that all the surface-level things are something that they can work on together, like divestment. And most of our solidarity has come from students of color [campus] groups.

I believe that those bonds are going to stay pretty strong, with the growing hostility everywhere.

For more information on SJP West, visit their website at




Our alma maters, my husband and I, are UCLA and UCI... clearly they won't need our donations anymore. After a high compensation package to an incompetent like Napolitano, evidently they have plenty of money to throw around.


Being against illegal entrants into one's country is not the same as being anti-immigration. Your article blurs the line between the two. What's wrong with deporting 1.5 million undocumented people? That is not against any law, national or international. Every country practices deportation of people who are not authorized to reside within the country. There is a clear process to be granted a visa or citizenship, and people should respect this process because it is there for our well-being. Deportation is a consequence of not following the law and I am fully in agreement with it.


Thanks for your thoughts, Richard; however, I disagree on several counts. First off: people are "unauthorized" to be in the country? Did the Europeans not come here and claim land that was already settled by others? If that is true, then most all of us are "unauthorized" to be here in the U.S.A. Next, the process of which you speak is extremely arduous. Most of us that grew up in the U.S. never had to learn much of what is expected to be memorized by people who wish to become citizens. Next, the citizens of the U.S. would most likely benefit from a form of immigration reform geared towards an easier "path" to citizenship; a city such as Riverside, CA would gain approximately $21 million each year in taxes from labor and consumption. As of right now, the main people benefiting are not the citizens, but the corporation owners that are allowed to pay undocumented people extremely low wages without benefits; they also do not have to pay federal or state taxes/fines for those workers, thereby saving the business owners even more money. Thus, I do not believe the process is here for the benefit of the citizens. Finally, authorization is being given by policies that were made long ago by people with a very small amount of information, at least in comparison to the data that we are privy to today. Also, it seems that the people in control of policy-writing today either lack the intelligence to write clear and concise policy, or they do not care about the people they are supposedly representing. As in all issues, many factors are intertwined, and to speak about doing patchwork (resolving one issue at a time) instead of revamping the entire system seems foolish at best, if not completely inane. Remember: symptoms are merely signs of a greater problem; fix the problem, not the symptoms. Example...if the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was not in place, there is a high probability that many folks would not have a need to cross the U.S. border to feed their families.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).