How Colleges Are Responding to Demands That They Become ‘Sanctuary Campuses’

December 02, 2016

Peter Hvizdak, AP Images
To protect undocumented immigrant students, a handful of colleges have declared themselves to be "sanctuary campuses." Others have avoided that term but have pledged support for such students, and have spelled out what they will do if immigration authorities come knocking. Above, a speaker holds a microphone toward a crowd during a rally for "sanctuary" status at Yale U. last month.
In the past few weeks, Xavier Maciel, a first-year transfer student at Pomona College, has on more than one occasion woken up to over a dozen emails from college professors across the country.

After the presidential election, he created a spreadsheet to track which colleges were circulating petitions to become "sanctuary campuses" — an idea similar to sanctuary cities, where officials will not cooperate with the deportation efforts of federal immigration authorities. Each morning, he fields emails from faculty or students wanting to add their college’s petition to his list; it now has over 150 institutions on it.

For campuses that have made a 'good start,' advocates suggest their next step should be to 'think creatively about other support students will need.'
Petitions and protests in support of undocumented immigrant students sprang up at colleges nationwide in the weeks following the election, spurred by President-elect Donald J. Trump’s promise to eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy that the Obama administration put in place through executive action. That policy, often called DACA, granted some young people who are in the country without proper legal authorization the ability to live and work in the United States for renewable two-year increments without fear of deportation.

Since the petitions began, at least five colleges have declared themselves "sanctuary campuses," but many more have publicly pledged support for DACA and their undocumented students. Administrators at many of those institutions have, rather than issue a blanket declaration, articulated what they will and will not do — often hewing to a similar set of policies, with some offering more details than others.

Presidents of institutions in the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities said in a statement Wednesday that they felt "spiritually and morally compelled" to speak up and protect undocumented students. An administrator at Columbia University said the institution would limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities, and also increase financial aid for undocumented students, should DACA be eliminated or curtailed. And the University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges systems urged Mr. Trump to continue the DACA program in a joint letter sent Tuesday.

"There will be time for a vigorous debate and dialogue around immigration reform in the days ahead," the letter said. "We implore you to let [DACA students] know they are valued members of our communities and that they will be allowed to continue to pursue the American dream."

The California systems didn’t use the phrase "sanctuary campus" in their letter, but did separately outline specific steps they’d take to support their undocumented students. Many colleges have made similar guarantees, absent the "sanctuary" designation." Some have promised students that they won’t let authorities conduct immigration-enforcement activities on their campuses, and that they won’t release student records without a warrant, subpoena, or court order. They have also said the campus police won’t cooperate with efforts to enforce immigration laws, and that the institutions will continue to admit and support students regardless of their immigration status.

The University of California, in a news release, added that its administrators would not cooperate with federal efforts to create a registry based on religion, race, or sexual orientation.

Interpreting ‘Sanctuary’

Mr. Maciel said he wishes the specific phrase "sanctuary campus" was being said more by colleges because it better conveys a spirit of "resistance and noncompliance." However, the term is subject to different interpretations, which is part of why university leaders may be avoiding it.

"Immigration lawyers with whom we have consulted have told us that this concept has no basis in law," Princeton University’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, said in a statement. "Colleges and universities have no authority to exempt any part of their campuses from the nation’s immigration laws," he said the lawyers had advised.

David W. Oxtoby, the president of Pomona, suggested the phrase was more symbolic than substantive. Speaking at The Chronicle’s office on Thursday (see a video of that conversation), he said administrators at Pomona did not want to "overpromise" by declaring the college a sanctuary campus. Instead, Pomona has made specific, tangible guarantees to students.

Mr. Oxtoby held meetings with some student groups after the election, Mr. Maciel said, and the concerns raised in those meetings were largely addressed by the promises the institution has made since. Because Pomona already provides financial aid and support services to undocumented students, Mr. Oxtoby said some of the commitments they’ve made since the election won’t lead to significant changes in campus policy.

Cinthia Flores, manager of the Dream Resource Center in the University of California at Los Angeles’s Labor Center, said efforts like these are a "good start." Commenting on the joint letter from the California systems and the University of California’s policy statement, she said the next step is for administrators to "think creatively about other support students will need" — such as services for the families of undocumented students.

Like college administrators, many city leaders have also pledged support for residents who are in the country without authorization. Officials in sanctuary cities like San Francisco, New York, and Chicago have all said they would not help Mr. Trump if his administration tried to fulfill a campaign promise of deporting millions of immigrants. In August, Mr. Trump threatened to block funding for sanctuary cities that don’t cooperate with immigration agents; these cities could lose millions of dollars if Mr. Trump follows through, The New York Times reported.

A Georgia lawmaker has proposed a bill that would similarly defund sanctuary campuses. "Private institutions can do what they want, but there are consequences to actions. And it can’t be an option to choose not to follow state and federal laws," State Rep. Earl Ehrhart said, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, said on Twitter that he would cut funding for state campuses that declare themselves sanctuaries.

About a week after the election, Mr. Oxtoby began asking other college presidents to sign onto a statement that calls on the "country’s leaders" to uphold and expand DACA. Four hundred and forty college and university presidents have signed on as of Thursday, and Mr. Oxtoby has been making calls and setting meetings to further the issue, said Marylou Ferry, the vice president and chief communications officer at Pomona. Referring to reports that Mr. Trump will overturn a raft of executive actions during his first few days in office, she said the presidents’ aim is that DACA won’t be one of them.