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Can Sanctuary Campuses Really Protect Students from Trump?

At least 28 schools have adopted the "sanctuary" designation since Trump was elected. But can universities really protect their students from deportation?

by Allison Pohle
Dec 9 2016, 5:00pm

Ever since Donald Trump was elected to be our next president, Andreé Franco Vasquez has carried her passport around Harvard College, where she's a student. If Trump does decide to deport all undocumented immigrants, as he's said he would do, she doesn't want to be sent to the wrong country.

Franco Vasquez, who came to the United States from Guatemala 15 years ago, is currently protected from deportation under DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But Trump has promised to repeal DACA and other executive actions by President Obama, which is why she's hoping Harvard will take additional steps to protect her and the other 40 undocumented undergraduate students who attend the Ivy League school by declaring it a "sanctuary campus."

Sanctuary campuses are essentially havens from deportation, though each campus has its own interpretation of what that actually means. At Wesleyan University, which was among the first to use the term this November, President Michael Roth worked with the university's legal counsel to develop two clauses that state it will not "voluntarily assist in any efforts by the federal government to deport our students, faculty, or staff solely because of their citizenship status." At Drake University, which just declared "sanctuary status," officials said they would do "everything within the law" to assist undocumented students. At least 28 schools have adopted the title since Trump was elected, and students at more than 100 have petitioned their universities to give their campuses sanctuary status.

But even if universities vow not to voluntarily assist immigration officials, it's not yet clear that classifying schools as "sanctuary campuses" can really stop undocumented students from being deported.

"That's the question everyone is trying to figure out," Alyson Sincavage, a legislative associate for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told me. "But what I do think is important is putting out there that no immigration or law enforcement officials can come without a subpoena or court order. That's what's required by all law enforcement agents, and they want to make sure that these federal enforcement agents are complying with due process."

At Harvard, university president Drew Faust has pledged her "clear and unequivocal support" for undocumented students, but won't declare the school a sanctuary campus.

It's not as if Harvard hasn't taken any steps to protect its students. The school has said that university's police officers will continue their practice of declining to inquire about anyone's immigration status. Faust, for her part, has a strong track record of standing up for undocumented students: In 2010, she intervened in the case of an undocumented student named Eric Balderas, who was detained at the San Antonio airport for traveling without proper identification; in 2015, she also intervened when Dario M. Guerrero, a student who was denied reentry to the US after taking his dying mother back to Mexico. Harvard also said it won't voluntarily share information about the immigration status of members of the undocumented community, and that law enforcement officials hoping to enter the campus will need to obtain warrants.

That's all great, the undocumented students say, unless federal immigration officials do actually make their way on campus. Typically, immigration enforcement does not take place on college campuses, but many undocumented individuals are worried that might change under a Trump administration.

That's why students at Harvard have asked to designate the historic Memorial Church in the middle of Harvard yard as a physical sanctuary where students can go if immigration officials ever did come to find them.

"We understand that as an open space, a sanctuary campus could be difficult to enforce," Miguel Garcia, a student who comes from a mixed-status family but is not himself undocumented, told me. "In creating a physical location, it would be a statement that immigration authorities could not enter these spaces."

But on Tuesday, Faust rejected a motion from faculty members to declare the school a sanctuary campus, adding that the university will continue to evaluate the situation with undocumented students as policies progress.

"Sanctuary campus status has no legal significance or even clear definition," Faust said in a statement provided to VICE. "It offers no actual protection to our students. I worry that in fact it offers false and misleading assurance. It also risks drawing special attention to the students in ways that could put their status in greater jeopardy. I believe it would endanger, rather than protect, our students, and that is not something I am willing for this institution to do."

As much as universities might want to protect their undocumented students, they are ultimately limited by the law. Many universities seem to acknowledge this limitation when crafting their own statements about sanctuary campuses. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, issued a statement to VICE that said its chancellor, Rebecca Blank, 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," the statement said.

That's why Blank, along with Faust and more than 500 college presidents nationwide, are trying to lobby the federal government. They signed a joint letter in support of upholding and continuing DACA, the policy created by Obama in 2012 that allows certain young, undocumented immigrants to remain in the country.

But on Harvard's campus, students are still fighting to earn the sanctuary label. For some, it's a symbolic gesture to show solidarity with undocumented classmates. Taras Holovko, a Harvard freshman, told me "everyone supports the idea of helping undocumented students, but I'm not sure what we could actually do to stop them from being deported."

For others, like undocumented student Ilian Meza-Peña, "asking for a concrete label translates into concrete actions." Harvard students have asked the university to provide more resources to its undocumented students, including a fund to help these students cover immigration-related legal fees, outlined in a petition to the university that received more than 6,000 signatures. The petition argues that "Harvard is responsible for [the] safety, healthy development, and intellectual freedom [of undocumented students] as well as for their safety from threats of violence, family separation and deportation." Not adopting the label, they feel, is the university's way of absolving itself of some of that responsibility.

"Many DACA recipients are concerned because they have provided their information to federal immigration officials and are worried that this information could now be used against them," Kavitha Bhagat, a Drake alumna and immigration attorney, told me. "Sanctuary campuses may be able to provide some degree of protection to students with DACA and those with no documents by not actively cooperating with federal immigration authorities."

As Garcia told me, it's also about the university expressing solidarity. "If students have to carry this shame, we would like the university to say, 'It is OK, you don't have to be afraid because we are not afraid. We want them to say we are willing to lead rather than follow."

As the inauguration of Trump looms closer, undocumented students are trying to juggle homework, their senior theses, and applying for jobs, all while dealing with the looming question of whether their futures will be able to take root in the US.

And, until she learns it's safe to do otherwise, Franco Vasquez will continue to carry her passport in her wallet.

Follow Allison Pohle on Twitter.