Protestors head to the Lincoln Memorial on November 16, 2016.
Thousands of students took part in a nationwide walkout November 16 urging their universities to become “sanctuary campuses.” Students argue that institutions of higher learning have a moral obligation to protect young people without immigration papers as part of their commitment to diversity and inclusion. But colleges are wary of meeting students’ demands because Republican lawmakers have threatened to retaliate by withdrawing financial support.
“No one knows what the Trump Administration will do,” says Linda Rabben, an associate research professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland and author of the 2016 book Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History. At various points during the campaign, she notes, Trump promised to ban Muslims from entering the country, deport millions of undocumented immigrants, and end President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program, “which grants temporary relief from the threat of deportation.”
As of mid-January, students on nearly 200 college campuses had signed petitions asking administrators to institute sanctuary status, according to Movimiento Cosecha, a national immigrants’ rights organization.
Demands vary from campus to campus, but most petitions call on universities to refuse to share information about students with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and to bar immigration officials from conducting deportation raids on campuses. Some students have also called for financial aid and legal counseling for undocumented students and their families.
“Many people have asked for and received sanctuary in the United States over the years, but this chapter is different because the motivation of the leaders is personal rather than political,” says Rabben. She likens the current sanctuary movement to that during the 1980s, when immigrants fled violence in Central America and sought refuge in local churches. “But today, the people on the front line are undocumented students who have lived with the threat of deportation and have great determination, which increases the likelihood that they will bring about change.”
Yesenia Villalpando-Torres, a student leader of the movement at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, agrees. “Undocumented students are unwilling to live in the shadows the way so many immigrants do,” she says. “My parents, sister, and I have endured heartache and fear since we moved to Madison from Mexico City seventeen years ago.” Her parents were barely able to get by working low-wage jobs. They once fled their home because a neighbor had figured out they were undocumented.
“Tasks that other people take for granted, like going to a hospital emergency room or buying medications in a pharmacy, are dangerous because we may be turned away,” says Villalpando-Torres, who will receive her bachelor’s degree in sociology in May. “Getting places takes tremendous time and effort because we don’t qualify for driver’s licenses.”
“Tasks that other people take for granted, like going to a hospital emergency room or buying medications in a pharmacy, are dangerous because we may be turned away."
She praises Edgewood for being “a supportive place,” one that has provided her with volunteer opportunities and helped guide her toward her goal of becoming an immigration lawyer. The presence of Villalpando-Torres and twenty-nine other undocumented students on the liberal arts campus intensified support for immigrants’ rights among students and faculty, notes Donna Vukelich-Selva, associate professor of education at Edgewood College.
“Although most of our 2,800 students are whites who were born in the United States,” she says, “they empathize with the daily struggles of their undocumented classmates, which will help them interact with undocumented immigrants and their families as teachers, physicians, and other professionals.”
Campuses across the country are approaching the decision to offer sanctuary with great care, says Hiroshi Motomura, the Susan Westerberg Prager Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles. Although there has never been a deportation raid on a college campus, colleges fear the Trump Administration may rescind the 2011 ICE directive urging agents to avoid enforcement in such sensitive locations as hospitals and college campuses.
“Administrators are conferring with trustees, alumni, and lawmakers because the law is unclear,” says Motomura, author of the 2014 book Immigration Outside the Law. “Sanctuary is a broad term” that means different things to different people. Colleges located in places like New York City and in blue states like California, where Democratic lawmakers have supported university efforts to provide services for undocumented students, are more likely to heed student demands than universities located in Texas or Georgia, where lawmakers support Trump’s immigration policies.
On December 1, after students at four publicly supported universities in Texas submitted petitions asking administrators to designate their campuses as safe havens for undocumented students, Republican Governor Greg Abbott tweeted: “Texas will not tolerate sanctuary campuses or cities. I will cut financial aid for any state campus if it established sanctuary.”
State Representative Earl Ehrhart, the longest serving Republican in the Georgia House, threatened to cut off state funds to any institution of higher education that pledges to protect undocumented immigrants, even private schools like Emory which receive some state-agency funds. “Private institutions can do what they want, but there are consequences to actions,” said Ehrhart, chair of the House’s higher education financing subcommittee. “And it can’t be an option to choose not to follow state and federal laws.”
To protect themselves against reprisals, private colleges like the University of Pennsylvania, Trump’s alma mater, have stopped short of adopting the label of “sanctuary campus” in their policy statements while pledging to continue protections for undocumented students.
“Penn is and has always been a ‘sanctuary’—a safe place for our students to live and to learn,” university President Amy Gutmann declared in a November 30 statement. “We assure you that we will continue in all of our efforts to protect and support our community, including our undocumented students.” She said the university would not allow immigration officials on campus unless “required by warrant” and would not share information about undocumented students with immigration agencies “unless presented with valid legal process.”
Meanwhile, University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen stated in a university-wide December email that the school will not risk declaring itself a sanctuary campus. “However,” he added, “we will continue to do everything we can within the law to reassure, support, and protect our students. Let us be clear . . . that includes our undocumented students.”
If U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, has his way, colleges that protect undocumented students will face severe cuts to student aid. In January, he introduced H.R. 483, which would amend Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 to tie federal funding to compliance with immigration law. The act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, is the major source of federal student aid, including Pell Grants for low income students.
A “top priority” for campus sanctuary advocates, Motomura says, will be preserving the DACA program, which grants protected status to undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as children and the ability to work legally.
In addition to the more than 700,000 DACA students, Motomura says there are thousands who didn’t qualify for DACA, and others who never applied for fear the government would use their personal information to deport them.
Trump had vowed to rescind DACA but hasn’t offered specifics. Trump’s choice of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General has further alarmed undocumented students; the Alabama Republican has described DACA as “mass backdoor amnesty.”
A bipartisan group of senators led by Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, has introduced a bill that would give a “provisional protected” status to DACA recipients until lawmakers pass comprehensive immigration reform. The bill, known as the Bridge Act, would permit DACA eligible immigrants to apply for protected status for a limited time if they pay a fee and complete a background check.
More than 600 college presidents have signed a statement asserting a moral imperative and national necessity for the United States to continue and expand DACA. “America needs talent and these students who have been raised and educated in the [United States] are already part of the national community,” the statement says. “They represent what is best about America.”
In 2014, the University of California became the first public university in the United States to found a legal center with full-time attorneys to provide legal aid to undocumented students and their families. Based at the University of California Davis School of Law, the center serves six other campuses without law schools. In addition to helping students apply for or renew DACA, the attorneys help students with other immigration matters so that they will stay in school and achieve their goals.
The Immigration Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, a nonprofit center that trains attorneys, paralegals, and community advocates to work with immigrants, has noted that using the DACA registry to deport 700,000 people would be “extremely costly” and logistically difficult. “However,” it added, “Trump is more unpredictable than past presidents, so we do not really know what to expect.”