Why Our Universities Must Provide Sanctuary to Undocumented Immigrants

In the age of Trump, it’s more important than ever for our learning institutions to join the fight against racism and xenophobia.

Alecia Richards

Immigrant Youth Justice League supporters gathered at Daley Center Plaza in Chicago on March 10, 2011 in support of the the Illinois DREAM Act. The bill, into law by Gov. Pat Quinn on August 2, 2011, increased undocumented students access to financial assistance for college. (People's World / Flicker CC BY-NC 2.0)

On November 16, students at more than 80 universities, colleges and high schools nationwide staged walk-outs, sit-ins and rallies urging their administrations to protect immigrants at risk of deportation by the incoming Donald Trump administration. The nationwide protests, which took place under the banner of the hashtag #SanctuaryCampus, called on universities to join the ranks of cities that limit their cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Universities also have a special ability, and thus a special responsibility, to create safe spaces for undocumented people and everyone threatened by our soon-to-be president. Both students and workers must be able to participate in their university’s community without fearing for their safety.

Despite Trump’s campaign pledge to cut federal funding to such sanctuary cities,” dozens have publicly reaffirmed their status as a safe haven for undocumented and immigrant people in the wake of his election. But that isn’t enough: Universities also have a special ability, and thus a special responsibility, to create safe spaces for undocumented people and everyone threatened by our soon-to-be president. Both students and workers must be able to participate in their university’s community without fearing for their safety.

Trump campaigned on xenophobia and dehumanization of the people whom he calls illegals.” Throughout his run, he promised to deport millions of undocumented people, and has doubled down on this pledge since winning election. He is expected to overturn Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama program that granted work permits and temporary relief from deportation to hundreds of thousands of young immigrants. And Trump’s divisive rhetoric has already led to an increase in hate incidents fueled by Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism.

In the face of these threats, college students are taking a stand. At more than 100 schools—including UCLA, Arizona State, Harvard and Northwestern, where I am a student — organizers have called on their administrations to declare a sanctuary campus. These efforts are a show of comradery with our undocumented brothers and sisters, as well as a denunciation of the hatred and intolerance that has been fueled by Trump in recent months.

ICE’s current policies limit enforcement in sensitive areas,” including religious centers, schools and hospitals. In these areas, ICE agents must avoid apprehend[ing], arrest[ing], interview[ing], or search[ing] an individual, or… surveil[ling] an individual for enforcement purposes” without permission from the proper authorities on campus. This is why the declaration of sanctuary campuses by administration is important. It shows an unwillingness to cooperate with officials whose sole purpose is to detain and deport members of our community.

On Wednesday, California State University responded to student protests by reaffirming its commitment to undocumented students. At a board of trustees meeting, Chancellor Timothy White said, ““Unless directed by California government code or required by law, the CSU will not enter into an agreement with state or local law enforcement agencies, ICE, or any other federal agency for the enforcement of federal immigration law.” University police will also fail to cooperate with ICE. This university has displayed the unity affirmed by cities and has set a precedent for other colleges in America.. This university has displayed the unity affirmed by cities and has set a precedent for other colleges in America.

At Northwestern University, where I am a senator in Associated Student Government, we have introduced legislation to the Associated Student Government with the goal of affirming the university’s commitment to protecting the safety of undocumented students and workers. A petition to the university garnered more than 700 signatures from faculty, staff, and students. A wide range of student groups then co-authored the legislation, including For Members Only, Northwestern’s black student union; the Asian Pacific American Coalition; the Quest Scholars Network and the Immigrant Justice Project. The legislation has been sponsored by student senators from all political parties.

Yesterday, student government officials met with Northwestern’s Vice President of Student Affairs to further discuss the possibility of a sanctuary campus. If the resolutions pass at the next senate meeting on November 30, student officials will reconvene with faculty to discuss enactment.

Northwestern has already experienced hate incidents by Trump supporters on campus. In March, two students spray painted anti-Semitic images on a chapel, and we have seen the emergence of other racist, homophobic and Islamophobic behavior. Like other campuses, we recognize the way the Trump campaign and results of the election further endanger undocumented and other vulnerable people.

Northwestern President Morton Shapiro publicly expressed his support of a safe space for all members of the Northwestern community in an August 25 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. Today, the university responded to the student petition with a statement assuring us that Northwestern University is strongly committed to being a welcoming, inclusive community. That commitment has not changed as a result of the recent election, and it will not.”

But the university must do more to live up to this commitment. The co-authors and sponsors of the legislation are calling on our administration to take our show of solidarity one step further: we are also calling for an actual declaration of a sanctuary campus, as well as more transparent need-blind admissions process for undocumented students, the same consideration of university-funded financial aid for undocumented students, a resource center specifically dedicated to aiding undocumented students, a mechanism to aid undocumented students in reporting hate crimes to the appropriate law enforcement agencies and a hiring process for new hires that will limit the potential for applicants to be discriminated against due to their national origin, citizenship, or immigration status.

Through officially adopting these policies, the president and university faculty can make good on their promise to ensure a safe, inclusive workplace and learning environment. At a time where the safety and wellbeing of marginalized groups is at stake, we need more than PR-savvy op-eds full of empty promises and placating rhetoric. We need to proactively counteract Trump’s divisiveness with a show of solidarity. The livelihood of our undocumented and immigrant peers depends on it.

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Alecia Richards is a fall 2016 editorial intern at In These Times.
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