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US universities worry that they have no way to protect their students from federal immigration agents

Students march in protest of the election of Republican Donald Trump as President of the United States in San Francisco
Reuters/ Elijah Nouvelage
Making their voices heard.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

In the days since US president-elect Donald Trump’s victory on a platform that included promises to deport unauthorized immigrants, students, alumni and faculty at several universities are asking their university administrations to make their colleges “sanctuary campuses” for immigrant students—safe spaces where they can study without the threat of deportation.

On Tuesday, hundreds of students, faculty and staff at Stanford sent an open letter addressed to the university president and provost, demanding that the university “immediately develop a protocol for making itself a sanctuary campus.” Other colleges with similar petitions include Oberlin, Columbia, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“Yale has promised to be a home for all of us. A home is supposed to be safe,” read a petition circulated by students at Yale. “We owe it to the most vulnerable members of our community to do our utmost.”

The problem, some of these colleges say, is they cannot guarantee students will be shielded from immigration officials. Trump has promised since his election to deport 2 to 3 million immigrants with criminal records. Meanwhile, Breitbart News, which is headed by Stephen Bannon, who was recently appointed as Trump’s “chief strategist and senior counselor,” has likened a “sanctuary campus” to an “illegal alien refugee camp.”

While most universities do not discriminate against students based on their immigration status, their ability to protect students from federal immigration authorities could be limited.

“Based on consultation with legal counsel, we understand that private universities and colleges do not have legal protection from entry by members of law enforcement or Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” wrote Cass Cliatt, Brown University vice president of communications, in a statement.

Most of the petitions circulated by students and alumni cite a 2011 US Immigration and Customs memo (pdf) that says that federal immigration officers should refrain from conducting enforcement actions such as arrests, interviews, searches and surveillance in “sensitive locations” such as colleges and universities in the absence of special circumstances, being led there by other law enforcement actions, or with prior approval.

Still, the University of Wisconsin at Madison said that the university chancellor did not have the “independent authority” to declare the campus a sanctuary and must operate the university within the limits of federal and state laws. While the University of Wisconsin Police Department will continue its practice of not gathering information about the immigration status of people interacting with the police, the statement said, it does not have to seek the permission from the university to enforce laws on campus.

What makes the problem particularly pressing is Donald Trump’s vow to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The program, which was put in place by president Barack Obama’s executive order in 2012, grants an exemption from deportation to children who arrived in the US before they turned 16 or before January 2010. Because of the protection provided by DACA, thousands of immigrants have been able to attend university.

However, as DACA was instituted by an executive order, it can be easily overturned by the next administration—an action that would lift any protection from deportation for the roughly 750,000 people in the program, and could give federal immigration authorities access to their information.

Universities are looking into whether they can provide any protection to the students who might face deportation if DACA is revoked.

“This weekend I have been asked by students and faculty about Wesleyan becoming a sanctuary campus, which means (at the very least) that we would not cooperate with any efforts at mass deportations,” wrote Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, in a statement. ”I find this a very promising direction, having said that ‘we will find ways to cultivate the values that sustain our educational community and protect the people who have made it their home.'”

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