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Can a Campus Be a Sanctuary?

A growing movement, in wake of Trump’s victory, calls on colleges to limit cooperation with federal immigration officials. Legal and political impacts are unclear.

November 15, 2016
 
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The election of Donald Trump to the presidency has prompted a growing number of petitions signed by students, faculty members and alumni at colleges and universities across the country calling on their institutions to limit their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement authorities and to declare theirs “sanctuary campuses.”

“Given what is on the horizon, the promise [by Trump] to deport up to three million people, not to mention the recent history of deportation and detention already occurring in the United States, there needs to be a clear message sent to our immigrant students that UIUC is going to be a sanctuary,” said Gilberto Rosas, an associate professor in the departments of anthropology and Latina/Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-author of a petition that, among other requests, asks Illinois’ administration to “guarantee student privacy by refusing to release information regarding the immigration status of our students and community members” and to “refuse to comply with immigration authorities regarding deportations or raids.”

A petition at Oberlin College that according to organizers had garnered more than 2,300 signatures by Monday afternoon calls on the college "to stand with other colleges and universities and investigate how to make Oberlin a sanctuary campus that will protect our community members from intimidation, unfair investigation and deportation" in light of the outcome of last week's election.

"We wanted to take a moral stand on this issue very quickly and to urge the administration to take the steps to make a meaningful institutional response to this very uncertain situation in which very vulnerable members of our college and university community could potentially be targeted," said Shelley Lee, an associate professor of history and comparative American studies at Oberlin and one of the organizers of the letter.

More than two dozen such petitions calling on university administrations to take steps to make their institutions “sanctuary campuses” have circulated through social media since the presidential election. The idea of the “sanctuary campus” has gained steam among students, faculty and others who are looking for concrete ways to help those individuals who fear the possibility of deportation or loss of opportunities under a Trump presidency. Trump has vowed to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, through which more than 700,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children have obtained temporary relief from deportation. These immigrants have also received the right to work under DACA.

“When we say that students who registered in good faith [under DACA] are fearing imminent deportation in this political climate, it is not an overstatement," said Cindy I-Fen Cheng, an associate professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and an organizer of a petition calling on the university "to implement a plan to declare our campus a sanctuary for undocumented and DACAmented students, staff and their family members who face imminent deportation."

The petitions vary by degree of specificity, but the basic idea is ask the college or university to do what it can to shield students and others on campus from immigration enforcement actions and to limit its cooperation with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. The sanctuary campuses concept is a twist on the idea of sanctuary cities, from which Trump has threatened to revoke federal funding.

But María Blanco, the executive director of the University of California Undocumented Legal Services Center, argued that the issues for universities are different than those for the sanctuary cities that as a matter of law or policy limit their cooperation with federal requests to hold immigrants in detention.

“There are at least three kinds of different things that could fall under a sanctuary policy,” Blanco said. “One is a university saying that ICE will not come on their campus to do immigration enforcement without warrants unless there’s an exigent circumstance.” A second, she said, is developing a policy that says a university police force will not act on behalf of federal agents to enforce immigration laws. A third, she said, involves information sharing -- “to the extent that universities have any records that identify the immigration status of their students, to protect those if there were a request from ICE for those records.”

“I think that what the students will be requesting are actually things that are doable, that don’t put the university at any kind of risk in terms of their federal funding,” Blanco said.

“I think it’s a symbolic effort that will make undocumented students feel more secure on campuses that adopt this,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell University Law School. “I’m not sure, however, that such sanctuary resolutions carry much legal weight. I think it will make campus administrators more hesitant to contact immigration officials, but if immigration officials say, ‘We’re looking for a specific student,’ I’m not sure that a sanctuary resolution will necessarily bar the campus from cooperating if they have to. While these sanctuary ordinances and resolutions can make administrators aware of how undocumented students are feeling and make sure that they think carefully about cooperating with immigration officials, at the end of the day an immigration official can always get a warrant if necessary.”

Some universities that have been locations of petition drives issued statements on Monday suggesting there are limits in their abilities to unilaterally declare their campuses sanctuaries. For example, Brown University said that based on its consultation with legal counsel, "we understand that private universities and colleges do not have legal protection from entry by members of law enforcement or Immigration and Customs Enforcement."

The University of Wisconsin at Madison said in a written statement that the university chancellor "does not have independent authority to declare the campus a sanctuary. She has authority to administer and operate the university but must do so within the limits of applicable federal and state laws and the policies and guidelines established by the Board of Regents."

UW Madison's statement continues, "The University of Wisconsin Police Department does not routinely gather information about the citizenship or immigration status of the people who have interactions with police officers. We have no plans to change this practice, which is similar to the practice of the Madison Police Department. However, University of Wisconsin Police Department and Madison Police Department officers have full authority from the state Legislature to enforce laws and applicable rules on campus without seeking permission of the university."

"I think it’s important that university administrators not make arbitrary decisions at this point in time that are inspired by political considerations, or sympathy for illegal alien students," said Jessica Vaughan, the senior director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for policies that limit immigration.

"If there is someone who is a problem on campus, let’s say potentially there’s an individual that the FBI and ICE are aware is involved in terrorism, and maybe planning a terror attack, and in the course of their investigation they want to find out what kinds of things the student has access to, or what the class schedule is or something that, in furtherance of an investigation that could save lives, I would hope that university authorities would see this clearly and see the need to not just have a blanket prohibition on giving information to immigration authorities," Vaughan said. "That is probably a worst-case scenario, but it could happen and you don’t want them to have this firewall around information that would obstruct an investigation like that. The other thing that needs to be considered is that universities and all institutions of higher education get a lot of money from the federal government, and if they are obstructing federal law, then they should not have access to federal funding potentially."

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