Colleges Deplore Trump’s Threat to DACA. How Far Can They Go to Fight It?

September 06, 2017

Hulda Nelson/UC Berkeley Communications & Public Affairs
A student protest last November at the U. of California at Berkeley. Like them, colleges have almost unanimously opposed President Trump's decision to end a program that's protected many students from deportation. In the long run, though, it's not clear what colleges can do.
As Labor Day wound to a close, college press offices were busy.

News had broken over the weekend that the Trump administration planned to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, known as DACA, with a six-month delay to allow Congress time to attempt a legislative fix.

The Obama-era program has given roughly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children the opportunity to live, work, and study in America, free from fear of deportation. Since many of the program’s beneficiaries, known as Dreamers — for the never-passed-by-Congress Dream Act, for which DACA was really a stopgap measure — are college students, institutions rushed to issue statements condemning the decision and imploring President Trump to reconsider.

They also reaffirmed their commitments to their campus communities, pledging to defend and support students whose lives would be fundamentally changed by the policy shift.

A letter posted online on Monday by Cristle Collins Judd, president of Sarah Lawrence College, was representative. In an echo of statements made by campus leaders after Mr. Trump’s January executive order attempting to ban travel by many citizens of majority-Muslim countries, Ms. Judd said that the college would not voluntarily surrender information about its students’ documentation, nor would the college voluntarily aid federal authorities in deporting students based on their status."The college is committed to using, to the maximum extent possible, its relationships with local, state, and federal authorities to protect the rights and interests of any student at immediate risk of deportation," she wrote.

But that raises an important question for college leaders: What is the "maximum extent" to which they can support students left vulnerable by the decision to phase out DACA?

Varied Safe Zones

Colleges that have identified themselves as "sanctuary campuses" now dot the nation, as do a greater number of institutions that have adopted policies to protect undocumented immigrants. But the term "sanctuary" has no legal basis, most experts say, and the institutions attempting to mark themselves as safe zones vary widely in levels of support for undocumented students. Some provide students legal services; others pledge to bar the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency from coming on campus without a warrant, said Denise L. Gilman, director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas at Austin’s law school.

In the immediate aftermath of the Trump administration’s DACA announcement, colleges have moved to offer a host of other services. Among them: finding ways to increase financial support for students who might be affected. (DACA recipients are not eligible for federal financial aid.)

Another short-term focus is students’ mental well-being. On the campus of the University of New Mexico, roughly 500 students walked out of class on Tuesday in protest of the decision. For many DACA recipients on campus, the past week has been filled with high-energy protests, said Armando Bustamante, student-programs specialist at the university’s El Centro de la Raza Mission.

But Mr. Bustamante is concerned about what happens when those protests are over, and how students will grapple emotionally with the decision.

To alleviate emotional turmoil, Mr. Bustamante is working with mental-health counselors on campus and in the community to start group-therapy sessions for students. For students who want to attend individual sessions, he’s also working to cover therapy costs, he said.

Mr. Bustamante is also enlisting faculty members to play a role in monitoring students’ everyday behavior, he said. "It’s OK to ask them if they’re OK."

Meanwhile, for some students, there’s paperwork to be done. Students whose legal status expires before or on March 5 can renew their two-year DACA status if they apply before October 5. Mr. Bustamante is connecting students who want to renew their status with the campus’s School of Law, which is offering pro bono help with their applications. Since delayed or denied applications could be costly, the school can help ensure nothing is left out.

“We need to do everything we can to prevent this from taking effect.”
In the meantime, colleges’ off-campus efforts include heavy lobbying of Congress. Mr. Trump’s at-times-contradictory statements on DACA have included appeals to lawmakers to find a way to protect Dreamers, but Congress already faces a daunting agenda and has struggled to pass legislation of consequence.

So higher-education groups are applying pressure, urging Congress to take action before the six-month period expires. Ted Mitchell, president of the the American Council on Education and a top official in President Obama’s Department of Education, said in a statement that Congress should consider two bills — the Dream Act and the Bridge Act — that would offer some protection to DACA students. "Congress must pick up the mantle and respond promptly and compassionately," Mr. Mitchell said.

And Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, urged Senate and House leaders in a letter "to act to remove any question of uncertainty for the approximately 800,000 beneficiaries enrolled in DACA."

Standing to Sue

Another option available to colleges: the courts.

Peter F. Asaad, an immigration lawyer, also drew parallels between the DACA rollback and the Trump administration’s prior move to bar entry into the United States to people from several Muslim-majority countries. It’s not just that colleges in both cases reacted strongly to the news, he said; they also have standing to sue the administration.

"If you look at the Muslim travel ban and the lawsuit that succeeded," he said, "the basis for that lawsuit was with universities and the way that universities had expressed harm that was inflicted upon them through the travel ban."

In the same way, he said, universities — and the students they serve — are now on the frontlines, facing harm from the rescinding of DACA. It’s possible, he continued, that a university could claim harm due to students who may be afraid to enroll in school or preemptively drop out of school as a result of the announcement.

Marty Meehan, president of the University of Massachusetts system, agrees that universities have a good case to take the administration to court before the six-month deadline.

In an interview with the The Chronicle on Wednesday, Mr. Meehan called the administration’s decision reckless, and he said he plans to fight the rollback in court. "We need to do everything we can to prevent this from taking effect," he said.

In a statement released Wednesday, Mr. Meehan joined chancellors in the university system in condemning the move.

"We reaffirm that we will not release information from student education records to outside parties without permission from the student, a judicial warrant, a subpoena, or as otherwise compelled by law," they wrote. "Our campus police departments will not voluntarily partner with law enforcement agencies to enforce non-criminal, non-terrorism related immigration actions."

There’s an extreme scenario to consider, however. If the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency brought a warrant to a college campus, would officials be willing to deny them entry?

Mr. Meehan said he’s been working with legal counsel to understand what colleges’ options would be in that situation. "We’re working with our own immigration counsel and with the attorney general to make sure that we know all of the rights we have to resist any kind of action like that," he said.

But legal experts said it’s improbable that that federal immigration agents would request warrants to approach individual students, given how the agency typically operates.

More worrisome for Ms. Gilman, of the University of Texas at Austin, are the partnership agreements that some university police departments have with the local police. Those police departments, in turn, often have relationships with federal agents. That network, she said, might ensnare undocumented students.

As Mr. Meehan researches his options, he said, he’s keeping his fingers crossed that Congress can get something done to protect students in the next six months. He has been heartened, he said, by the fact that several Republican members of Congress have voiced opposition to the DACA rollback.

"We certainly will pursue all of our legal options," he said, "but I’m hopeful we will resolve this in the coming months."

Correction (9/7/2017, 10:14 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Sarah Lawrence College's president, Cristle Collins Judd, and the name of the immigration lawyer Peter Asaad. The article has been updated to reflect those corrections. 

Adam Harris is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at