What’s in a Name?

University presidents articulate specific commitments to support undocumented immigrant students, but in many cases eschew the term -- “sanctuary campus” -- preferred by activists.

December 2, 2016
 
Courtesy of Movimiento Cosecha
Sanctuary campus protest at Rutgers University

Since the election, leaders of dozens of colleges and universities across the country have faced protests and petition drives calling on them to declare their institutions “sanctuary campuses” for undocumented immigrant students.

The calls have come from students, alumni, faculty and staff who are concerned about the prospect of stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws under a Donald J. Trump presidency and the possible elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, under which more than 700,000 young people have gained temporary protection from the possibility of deportation.

As formal responses to the various sanctuary campus petitions from college leaders have begun to roll in, some presidents have walked a fine line, outlining specific ways in which their institutions will not as a matter of policy voluntarily cooperate with federal officials in immigration law enforcement while avoiding adoption of the politically charged -- from some perspectives toxic -- term “sanctuary.”

In one such letter, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber said the university would protect its undocumented immigrant students “to the maximum extent that the law allows …. For example, we do not disclose private information about our students, faculty or staff to law enforcement officers unless we are presented with a subpoena or comparably binding requirement.”

At the same time, Eisgruber rejected the “sanctuary” label as counterproductive and potentially dangerous, writing that immigration lawyers consulted by Princeton “have told us that this concept has no basis in law, and that colleges and universities have no authority to exempt any part of their campuses from the nation’s immigration laws.”

“As a constitutional scholar myself, I agree with that judgment and believe that it connects to one of the country’s most basic principles: its commitment to the rule of law,” Eisgruber wrote. “That principle deserves special attention in this uncertain and contentious time. In a country that respects the rule of law, every person and every official, no matter what office he or she may hold, is subject to the law and must respect the rights of others. Princeton University will invoke that principle in courts and elsewhere to protect the rights of its community and the individuals within it. But we jeopardize our ability to make those arguments effectively, and may even put our DACA students at greater risk, if we suggest that our campus is beyond the law’s reach.”

To proponents of the movement, the adoption of the term “sanctuary campus” represents a powerful statement of a university’s commitment to protect some of its most vulnerable students, those who lack legal immigration status. And some college presidents -- including those at Portland State University, Reed College and Wesleyan University, have embraced the term, in each instance defining “sanctuary campus” in terms of limiting the university’s voluntary assistance with immigration enforcement actions while leaving open the possibility that they could be legally compelled to cooperate. For example, Reed President John R. Kroger wrote, “Reed will not assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the investigation of the immigration status of our students, staff or faculty absent a direct court order,” while Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth wrote that the institution “will not voluntarily assist in any efforts by the federal government to deport our students, faculty or staff solely because of their citizenship status.”

Similarly, Portland State University President Wim Wiewel wrote that the university “will not facilitate or consent to immigration enforcement activities on our campus unless legally compelled to do so or in the event of clear exigent circumstances such as an imminent risk to the health or safety of others” and that it “will not share confidential student information, such as immigration status, with the federal government unless required by court order.”

“We as a community share a commitment to the protection and support of all of our students, regardless of immigration status, national origin, religion or any similar characteristics,” Wiewel wrote. “Therefore, we declare that Portland State University is a sanctuary campus dedicated to the principles of equity, diversity and safety.”

But even advocates for undocumented immigrant students have questioned the usefulness of the “sanctuary” term. Writing an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed, Michael A. Olivas, an expert on immigration and higher education law and the acting president of the University of Houston Downtown, described the term “sanctuary” as lacking in legal meaning and “too fraught with restrictionist meanings or misunderstandings about the difference between ‘defying the law’ or choosing not to implement discretionary practices.”

“To many folks, the term depicts a defiance of law and serves as a trope for unauthorized immigration and liberal pieties,” Olivas wrote. “That it has become tinged with racist and anti-Mexican sentiment renders the term even more poisonous. One person’s safe harbor is another person’s harboring, in the dueling metaphors, if not the actual immigration law.”

The term “sanctuary campus” is a twist on the idea of “sanctuary cities,” which as a matter of policy limit their cooperation with federal requests to hold immigrants in detention. President-elect Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities, and there’s reason to think “sanctuary campuses” could face similar threats.

On Thursday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, responded on Twitter to reports that Texas State University students were urging administrators to declare the institution a sanctuary campus.

In Georgia, the chair of the higher education appropriations subcommittee in the state House of Representatives, Earl Ehrhart, decided to put forward legislation barring institutions that violate federal or state laws from receiving state funds after Emory University issued a letter suggesting it was considering sanctuary campus status. Emory President Claire E. Sterk’s letter to students, staff and faculty did not make any commitments to the sanctuary campus idea either way, but said only that “a letter requesting the need for a sanctuary campus and ways to protect all members of the Emory community is being reviewed by the university leadership.”

“If they’re going of follow the law, they can’t be a sanctuary campus,” said Representative Ehrhart, a Republican from the greater Atlanta area. “They’re mutually exclusive. Consequently, I’m going to attempt to pass legislation that makes it clear up front that state funding will be lost if you don’t follow the law. It’ll be a real clear consequence. If they go ahead and declare themselves a sanctuary, they’ll lose their state funding.”

Emory, in a statement, said the university “follows all federal laws and policies and will continue to do so … Emory University’s administration received a petition from a group of students, faculty and staff. The petition outlines concerns arising from the possible elimination of DACA. Emory administrators are evaluating the petition in an inclusive process to determine how best to serve those in our community whose immigration status may put them at risk.”

At Vanderbilt University, the student government on Wednesday voted 26 to one, with one abstention, in favor of a resolution calling on the university to become a sanctuary campus. The day before, Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos had issued a letter addressing the sanctuary campus call.

“We do not have the option of refusing to follow the law, but I want to emphasize that we are not a law enforcement agency. We are a university,” Zeppos wrote. “We are served by Vanderbilt University Police Department, and no VUPD officer is permitted to undertake an inquiry into the citizenship or immigration status of our students or others on our campus. We do not routinely release to the public or to public officials any citizenship or immigration information that may be in our possession, unless compelled to do so by law.”

Zeppos declined an interview request. Tariq Thachil, an associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt involved with a petition drive for a sanctuary campus, said that organizers “appreciate the fact that he’s coming out and clarifying some of the positions. I think we still would want to seek a little bit further clarification, because there’s some ambiguity in the language” -- specifically, Thachil said, in relation to the use of the words “undertake” and “routinely.”

Lisa Guenther, an associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt, described Zeppos’s letter as “encouraging but vague.”

“One thing that disturbed me about the letter was that the chancellor framed the sanctuary campus movement as a commitment to lawlessness, as if the students were asking Vanderbilt to directly defy the law,” Guenther said. “He says in his letter we can’t break the law, but the sanctuary campus movement is not a call for lawlessness. Every campus that has declared itself a sanctuary has made it clear that they cannot provide sanctuary in defiance of, for example, a warrant for the arrest of someone.”

Guenther acknowledged, however, that a petition to Zeppos she helped organize calling on Vanderbilt to publicly declare itself a sanctuary campus is not nuanced in regard to that distinction. Rather, the petition, which Guenther said uses language put forward by student activists, proposes “cutting ties with all law enforcement agencies that collaborate with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP),” “refusing law enforcement agencies who collaborate with ICE access to any Vanderbilt properties or information,” and “instituting a policy prohibiting campus police from inquiring about immigration status, enforcing immigration laws or participating with ICE/CBP in actions.” The petition also calls for Vanderbilt to refuse “to cooperate with any ‘registration’ system that seeks to target or surveil Muslims.”

“I see that as a kind of opening gambit,” Guenther said of the proposals put forward in the petition. “Now I think we’re trying to move into the phase of trying to formulate some commitments that we all can live with and that are actually legally possible to implement.”

Two other letters and statements sent by university leaders this week identify specific commitments to supporting students who lack legal status to live in the U.S. while avoiding use of the word “sanctuary” altogether. The president’s office at the University of California announced on Wednesday that it would “vigorously protect the privacy and civil rights of the undocumented members of the UC community and will direct its police departments not to undertake joint efforts with any government agencies to enforce federal immigration law.” UC articulated the following specific commitments for all of its campuses and medical facilities:

  • “The university will continue to admit students consistent with its nondiscrimination policies so that undocumented students will be considered for admission under the same criteria as U.S. citizens or permanent residents.”
  • “No confidential student records will be released without a judicial warrant, subpoena or court order, unless authorized by the student or required by law.”
  • “No UC campus police department will undertake joint efforts with local, state or federal law enforcement agencies to investigate, detain or arrest individuals for violation of federal immigration law.”
  • “Campus police officers will not contact, detain, question or arrest any individual solely on the basis of (suspected) undocumented immigration status.”
  • “The university will not cooperate with any federal effort to create a registry of individuals based on any protected characteristics such as religion, national origin, race or sexual orientation.”
  • “UC medical centers will treat all patients without regard to race, religion, national origin, citizenship or other protected characteristics and will vigorously enforce nondiscrimination and privacy laws and policies.”

Meanwhile, a letter sent by Harvard University President Drew Faust on Monday reiterated the policy of the university police department to not inquire about the immigration status of students, faculty or staff and said that the department is not involved in enforcing federal immigration laws. Further, Faust wrote that the university “will not voluntarily share information on the immigration status of undocumented members of our community” and that “law enforcement officials seeking to enter campus are expected to check in first with the [Harvard University Police Department] and, in cases involving the enforcement of the immigration laws, will be required to obtain a warrant.”

Faust’s letter includes no mention of the word “sanctuary,” a fact that a university spokesman declined to comment on -- and a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by activists involved in the PUSH, or Protect Undocumented Students at Harvard, movement, who wrote an op-ed to The Harvard Crimson calling Faust out on the omission.

“Declaring Harvard University as a sanctuary campus is more than a symbolic gesture, as it is a necessary step in reaffirming the university’s commitment to undocumented students and students from mixed-status families,” they wrote.

“Declaring Harvard as a sanctuary campus would also stand as a denouncement of a heightened culture of xenophobia and bias that renders certain communities vulnerable, particularly undocumented students, students of color, LGBTQ students and Muslim students. In addition to reaffirming the university’s commitment against voluntary cooperation with federal immigration authorities including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol, Harvard’s status as a sanctuary campus would also involve the university’s refusal to cooperate with any registration system that seeks to surveil and identify Muslim community members. We reject the notion that the desired label carries no substantive value and uphold our belief in the power of words to influence our community’s culture and collective identity.”

“Many of the students recognize that the administration is making an effort to meet some of the students’ demands without embracing the label, and we question the reasons behind that reluctance,” said Miguel Garcia, a senior at Harvard and one of the authors of the Crimson letter. He added, “We understand that the reasons are financial and political.”

“I believe their approach is to say, ‘Let’s provide these protections, let’s not make a big ruckus,’” Garcia continued, “when the reality is that many students are afraid, and we don’t have room or time for the richest university in the world to be afraid.”

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