On March 19, a student named Denisse Moreno Melchor finished a class in the University of Arizona’s Modern Languages building. Walking through the building’s halls, she noticed a pair of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.
“I was like, ‘You’re supposed to be at the career fair that ended an hour ago,” Moreno Melchor told the Daily Wildcat on March 20. 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.”
What Moreno Melchor left out is she filmed the incident and posted it to social media. From there, criminal charges, death threats, protests and a planned communitywide set of conversations hosted by President Dr. Robert C. Robbins have followed.
If you haven’t followed all the developments in what has become a national story, here’s an update on the latest surrounding the “Arizona 3.”
Not every detail is known about the incident that started everything. In the video, Moreno Melchor can be seen approaching an open door and then heard shouting “murder patrol” and “KKK” at the agents.
She also asked the agents to address recent charges in the broader culture of border enforcement.
“How about you talk about slashing water? How about you talk about taking the shoes off migrants, letting them walk through the desert barefoot? How about you talk about all the graves of unidentified folks?,” she asked in the video.
The agents were presenting to members of the Criminal Justice Association, a club focused on exposing members to different careers in law enforcement and the justice system, according to its website.
From here, things become murky. At some point off camera, the club’s president, criminal justice studies student Luisa Pinto, said she spoke with a UA staff member who was with Moreno Melchor.
“I did try to get [Denisse] to talk to me, but she would not,” Pinto said in a previous Daily Wildcat story. “But there was a UA employee there … I had more interaction with him because he was calmer.”
Dean of Students Kendal Washington White said that employee was Matt Matera, coordinator of the Immigrant Student Resource Center, although she could not confirm in what capacity he was there.
Eventually, Pinto contacted the University of Arizona Police Department. Pinto, Washington White and the UAPD have confirmed UAPD were called and arrived on scene. According to Pinto, they were able to close the classroom’s doors and conclude the event. Then, the officers called the Dean of Students Office, according to Washington White.
“My understanding is UAPD, they came there … but there was no action, no arrest, because we would have received that info by now. It’s my understanding that they called the dean-on-call … and they wanted the dean of students to manage,” Washingon White said in a previous Daily Wildcat story.
After the event, further video taken by Moreno Melchor shows her, joined by multiple other protesters, as they walk behind the two Border Patrol agents to their vehicle, taunting them in Spanish and English.
For Pinto, Moreno Melchor’s actions bordered on harassment.
“I believe that it wasn’t her words, it was her actions,” Pinto said in a previous Daily Wildcat story. “Her right to free speech only goes so far. 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.”
On March 20, a demonstration was held on campus to protest the presence of Border Patrol on campus during Spring Career Days — as well as an incident involving an undocumented family and the agency a few miles south of campus — the day before.
Then, on March 21, the Associated Students of the University of Arizona issued a statement, ostensibly in support of Moreno Melchor’s protest.
“We have an obligation and a responsibility to protect, support and speak out for all Wildcats, including our DACA and undocumented students,” it read. “Simply put, unannounced visits by the U.S. Border Patrol are unacceptable.”
That statement was followed on the same day by a letter from Robbins.
Robbins told the UA community “providing a safe environment for students to pursue their education is my top priority. Ensuring safety can take many forms, including providing an environment where students feel the university will support them.”
However, he seemed to stay neutral and avoided laying blame.
“All members of our campus community should be able to engage with a variety of viewpoints and positions and express themselves as well … That requires we respect others’ right to speech and that they respect ours,” he said.
Less forgiving was Art Del Cueto, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agency’s largest rank-and-file union. In an interview with conservative radio-host James T. Harris on March 22, Del Cueto talked about how upset he was with the video.
While praising the agents for their response, he accused Moreno Melchor of stalking and harassing the agents and implored the UA to come down harder on her for the incident.
He also joked he would find a way to address the concerns students who felt they weren’t safe with the Border Patrol’s presence on campus.
“Send me the names of the actual illegal aliens at the school and their addresses, and I will be glad, on behalf of the Border Patrol union, to send any type of information when agents are going to be at their school,” he said.
Another outside force unhappy with the university response was the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch. On March 25, Mark Spencer, Southwest project coordinator for the organization, letter to UA administration.
After detailing what he saw in the video of the incident, Spencer then laid out the UA’s Student Code of Conduct policy concerning harassment and alleged it was broken multiple times during the interaction between the agents and Moreno Melchor.
“We are requesting a formal investigation by you and/or your staff,” Spencer said in the letter. “And also an appropriate response, intervention, sanction and/or action if/when the allegations are sustained.”
By Friday, March 29, Robbins released a new statement regarding the March 19 encounter.
As opposed to his more general letter the week before, this statement affirmed the university’s commitment to the Border Patrol while calling the incident in question “a dramatic departure from our expectations of respectful behavior and support for free speech on this campus.”
“The student club and the CBP officers invited by the students should have been able to hold their meeting without disruption,” the letter said. “Student protest is protected by our support for free speech, but disruption is not.”
He also confirmed UAPD were investigating the incident further.
Then on Monday, April 1, UAPD announced misdemeanor charges against Denisse and another student involved in the March 19 incident. Later that week, a third student would also be charged.
All three students face a charge of “interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution,” and Moreno Melchor faces an additional charge of “threats and intimidation.” If convicted, all three face possibility of six months in jail.
In a joint statement to The Guardian, Denisse and one of the other students charged said the charges were further proof of the systemic effort by law enforcement to persecute people of color.
“The backlash we have received since speaking out has been overwhelming and violent. We are now being investigated and harassed by the University of Arizona police department, and criminally prosecuted. This campus is unsafe in general, however that has now been heightened since the investigation started,” Mendoza Melchor said to the Guardian. “This campus is unsafe in general, however that has now been heightened since the investigation started.”
Moreno Melchor and the other charged students weren’t the only ones dealing with threats. On April 2, the second floor of the Cesar Chavez building — where the Department of Mexican American Studies is housed — was evacuated due to a death threat.
According to an associate professor within the department, Roberto Rodriguez, who said he saw the text of the threat, the missive was addressed “To all you Commie professors.”
In the fallout, the department issued a letter in support of the charged students and a broader goal of eliminating the presence of Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from campus.
“As a land grant, Native-Serving and as a newly Hispanic-Serving institution, the UA should be supporting students as members of these vulnerable communities rather than investigating and prosecuting them,” the letter read.
Additionally, on April 10, the department tendered a vote of “no-confidence” in Robbins’ leadership ability.
For its part, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education also issued a statement questioning the university’s decision to charge the students at all.
“In such a situation, criminal prosecution is a heavy hammer,” it read. “Filing criminal charges against students for campus speech that may be protected by the First Amendment will chill protected student speech.”
On April 3, Robbins released one more statement. After a week that had seen the charging of three students, a building evacuation and an appearance by Del Cueto in front of campus conservative groups, Robbins was eager to reassure a weary community.
“My absolute top priority as president of the University of Arizona is the safety of every person on campus and every member of our campus community,” he said.
Robbins said the threats against MAS and other individuals would be taken seriously and the events of the past weeks had challenged the university community. Then, he made a proposal to bring the community together.
“I am currently in the process of planning a series of ‘Campus Conversations’ that will bring national and local experts, including Keith Allred, the leader of the Institute for Civil Discourse, to our campus,” he said.
The first Campus Conversation will be April 23, 9-11 a.m. in the Student Union Grand Ballroom, but members of the community made their voices heard last week, albeit silently.
On Wednesday, April 10, nearly 300 demonstrators calling themselves the “Coalition in Support of the Arizona 3” marched across the UA campus clad in white with mouths covered by duct tape to drop off letters in support of the ‘Arizona 3’ at the Old Main office of President Robbins.
Raquel Gutierrez, a third-year creative writing graduate student, was one of three press liaisons for the group. She explained the protest was her way to display her dissatisfaction with the way the administration has handled the incident and how law enforcement treats minority communities.
“This is because of the culture that we’re in right now, in the way that black and brown communities all over the country have been at the hands of really violent law enforcement,” she said.
Wednesday’s demonstration was a prelude for Thursday, April 11, when protesters with the same group assembled and sat in on the Arizona Board of Regents meeting being held in Student Union Memorial Center’s Grand Ballroom.
During the call to the audience portion of the meeting, the board paused and announced they would be delaying the continuation of the meeting in order to reconfigure the room to allow additional community members inside.
When the meeting resumed, three members of the coalition spoke, including Moreno Melchor, who reiterated the groups demands: that the charges against the three students be dropped, that ICE and Border Patrol be barred from campus and that Robbins resign his position as UA president if the first two demands are not met.
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