Can sanctuary college campuses survive?
President Donald Trump has made immigration reform a centerpiece of his young administration. New policies include banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., and a plan to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
That has raised concerns about undocumented students who attend college under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and about the impact on international recruiting efforts and overseas campuses. As many as 250,000 college students in the U.S. are undocumented, according to the Pew Research Center.
Higher ed didn’t wait long to respond.
Soon after the November election, the American Association of University Professors endorsed a “sanctuary campus” stance, urging institutions to adopt policies to protect undocumented students by: refusing to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents on campus without a warrant; not gathering information on or sharing students’ immigration status; and providing tuition support to DACA students.
Portland State University and Reed College in Oregon declared themselves sanctuary campuses in the weeks following the election.
Soon after, Wesleyan University, Pitzer College, Santa Fe Community College, UPenn, Connecticut College, Drake University and Swarthmore College also declared themselves sanctuary campuses. And by mid-February, some 28 more campuses nationwide voiced support for the cause.
But not every school is willing—or able—to take that step.
“Declaring ourselves a sanctuary campus not only lacks substantive meaning for policy and practice, but also sends a message that is interpreted inconsistently across the country,” Claire Sterk, newly installed president of Emory University, wrote in a letter to the university.
Southern Illinois University System President Randy Dunn told reporters that none of their system’s institutions would participate. Doing so would put the university and its students at risk of, among other things, losing federal financial aid.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has threatened state institutions with funding cuts should they become sanctuary campuses, and Indiana lawmakers are considering a bill to ban sanctuary campuses in the state.
Pushback and precedents
Students and staff have demonstrated at more than 130 campuses around the country, petitioning administrators to protect undocumented students.
“The tenor of this movement is more about schools not participating in any enforcement activities,” says Andres Ortiz, an immigration lawyer with New York-based Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy.
“They are doing what they can within the law to prevent federal agents from going onto campus and apprehending undocumented students.”
There has long been a “memorandum of understanding” that immigration officials not go to certain places—courts, churches, hospitals or schools—for enforcement activity. “That has been abided by throughout the Bush and Obama administrations,” Ortiz says. The Trump administration has not yet said whether it would follow suit.
The answer may come sooner than later. On February 9, ICE agents began a deportation sweep in Los Angeles and across Southern California, and also in five other states.
Meanwhile, Trump’s original travel ban was blocked by two federal courts, but administration officials say White House lawyers will issue a new order that will be easier to enforce.
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