How schools are responding to 'sanctuary campus' demands

In some cases, a 'sanctuary' title can lead to funding cuts

In a recent issue, we wrote about how students across the nation are demanding their campuses become sanctuaries for undocumented students in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump's promise to repeal the DACA.

Here's the latest on how schools are responding to the demands.

Avoiding the label

Some colleges have resisted officially adopting the label "sanctuary campus," expressing a variety of concerns:

  • The term has no standardized interpretation;
  • Some experts say the move could put DACA students at more risk; and
  • Some lawmakers have threatened to pull funding for self-declared sanctuary campuses.

There is no consensus on what it means to be a sanctuary campus. Under one interpretation, a sanctuary institution refuses to comply with federal law in the case of deportation efforts. But college and university leaders are wary of the repercussions of declaring their campuses outside the confines of federal legislation.

Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber, for instance, rejected the sanctuary label after immigration lawyers determined it had "no basis in law" and that colleges "have no authority" to defy immigration laws, he explained in a letter to campus. "We may even put our DACA students at greater risk if we suggest that our campus is beyond the law's reach," Eisgruber wrote.

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Loss of funding is another concern, since government officials in many states have threatened to cut funding for sanctuary campuses.

Georgia Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R), chair of the higher education appropriations subcommittee in the state House of Representatives, has drawn up legislation cutting funding for any institution that violates state or federal law. He introduced the legislation after Emory University declared itself a sanctuary campus.

"If they are going to follow the law, they can't be a sanctuary campus," Ehrhart said. "They're mutually exclusive."

Outlining specific protection plans

Regardless of their choice to avoid an official label, many schools have outlined support for undocumented students.

The president's office at the University of California (UC), for instance, made commitments such as:

  • Not to release confidential student records without a judicial warrant;
  • Not to use UC campus police to investigate, detain, or arrest undocumented immigrants; and
  • Not to use UC campus police to contact, detain, question, or arrest an individual on the basis of (suspected) immigration status.

UC has avoided the use of the word sanctuary.

Harvard University's president sent a letter outlining similar commitments, announcing that the university police department:

  • Will not inquire about the immigration status of students, faculty, or staff;
  • Will not voluntarily share information on the immigration status of students; and
  • Will require law enforcement officials outside of Harvard's police department to obtain a warrant before entering campus when intending to enforce immigration laws.

Harvard likewise chose not to use the word sanctuary in outlining its commitments—although the choice was criticized by some students. 

Here's what the Obama Administration' DACA did for higher ed

Unless compelled

Other college leaders—such as those at Reed College, Portland State University, and Wesleyan University—have embraced the term sanctuary campus, but specify that their intention is to limit the degree to which the institution will cooperate with immigration enforcement voluntarily. This phrasing allows colleges to reassure state and federal governments that they would comply if legally compelled, but asserts that college leaders will do everything in their power to protect their students to the extent the law allows (Najmabadi, Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/2; Redden, Inside Higher Ed, 12/2).

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