The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ivy League students, professors, alumni ask schools to be sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants

Harvard University. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

Thousands of students, professors, alumni and others at elite schools including Harvard, Yale and Brown have signed petitions asking universities to protect undocumented students after a presidential campaign that made illegal immigration a flash point.

President-elect Donald Trump made enforcement of immigration laws a touchstone, a position that was popular among many voters but leaves college officials deeply concerned about immigrant students who were admitted because of their academic achievement and potential. Those students now face fears about educational opportunity swept away and possible deportation.

The Post's Rebecca Sinderbrand breaks down what's new in Trump's immigration speech and how it was received. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Donald Trump plans to immediately deport 2 million to 3 million illegal immigrants

When Enrique Ramirez applied to Harvard, he didn’t write that his family was supposed to return to Mexico after a work visa expired. When he was accepted, he didn’t know if there were any other students in his precarious position. After President Obama issued an executive order offering protection to students from deportation, the possibility of authorization to work and the chance to get driver’s licenses, he wrote about his situation and began to hear from other students at Harvard. And last week about 20 of them were together, in tears, calling their families, as the election results rolled in.

“It just seemed like a very bad thing had happened,” said Ramirez, who is 22 and hopes to go to law school next year.

President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to immediately deport 2 million to 3 million people who are in the country illegally, focusing on those who have been convicted of crimes. The Obama administration similarly focused removal efforts on criminals, and his administration deported a record number of people from 2009 to 2014 as compared to previous presidents, according to Department of Homeland Security data.

There’s a lot of uncertainty and anxiety at this point, said Terry Hartle, of the American Council on Education.

Exactly how many undocumented immigrants are enrolled in U.S. colleges is not known. Some are protected from deportation through Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative, known as DACA. Some aren’t.

DACA created a database — and the Department of Health and Human Services vigorously encouraged students to enroll — but the database provided no legal protection for those who signed up, Hartle said.

“This means the federal government has a database of people whose legality in the country can be questioned,” Hartle said. “That creates anxiety across the board.”

People aren’t sure whether Trump will follow through on campaign rhetoric on deportations, Hartle said; in an interview Sunday night, Trump seemed to focus on people with a criminal record separate from their immigration status, which people in the DACA database, by definition, do not have.

“The big question is what will the Trump administration do — if anything — with the three-quarters-of-a-million names in the DACA database,” Hartle said. “Nobody knows. Stay tuned.”

He said it’s far too early to know whether any colleges will choose to become “sanctuary campuses” — or even just what that means. It’s drawing off the idea of sanctuary cities, he said, and with officials refusing to help authorities identify and find students who may not be in the U.S. legally, “but whether a college can say, ‘We’re a sanctuary,’ and have it make any meaningful difference is unclear.”

On Monday, a group of students presented a list of demands to Harvard administrators, representing the estimated 40 undocumented students enrolled, and those who support them. The Harvard Crimson on Monday first reported about the petition, which is now signed by more than 4,400 people. The students hope to meet with university leaders to discuss it later this week.

They asked Harvard to do things such as commit to support the students enrolled by hiring a dean of equity, diversity and inclusion, create a fund to help students with legal expenses, hire a counselor to work with students facing immigration-status stress, and proclaim Harvard Memorial Church a refuge for students facing deportation.

Lorgia Garcia-Peña, an assistant professor, said Harvard has been good about supporting undocumented students, but that not all are even aware that help is available.

“What students are asking for specifically is some sort of central office that can serve as a liaison,” something more than a single staff member who is pulled in many directions, “in a time when we’re anticipating this will be more difficult for undocumented students emotionally, legally and in other ways,” Garcia-Peña said. “We’re just hopeful that the administration is going to listen to its students, make Harvard a safe space — and act quickly. … Hopefully they’ll understand the urgency.”

David Cameron, a spokesman for the university, said in a statement Monday that Harvard has long worked to ensure the broadest possible reach of education and research, including on immigration issues.

“Harvard’s policies have supported all our students at both the college and professional schools to make certain they can fully participate in, and access all, that Harvard has to offer,” Cameron said. “President Faust was an early and strong supporter of the Dream Act and the Administration’s efforts with DACA to provide students with legal status. We are following developments in Washington closely and will be engaged in these core issues.”

At Yale, more than 2,000 people asked the university to make the campus in Connecticut a haven for illegal immigrants, the Yale Daily News reported Monday.

Some students plan to walk out Wednesday afternoon in support of the national #sanctuarycampus movement circulating on social media.

A spokesman for Yale, Thomas Conroy, replied with a statement: “Our primary concern is the safety and well-being of all of our students and community members. We look forward to working with policymakers to assure that all Yale students can complete their degrees and go on to be successful and valued contributors to the nation and the world.”

Yale professor: My students aren’t snowflakes, and they don’t melt

Those efforts join protest initiatives at schools such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Johns Hopkins University and dozens of others.

Pomona College officials estimate there are about 50 to 60 students who are undocumented or have DACA status among roughly 1,600 undergraduates at the private school in Southern California. After Trump’s victory, “they’re much more anxious now, about themselves, and about their families, and will they be able to complete their education,” Pomona President David Oxtoby said. “It’s been challenging.”

Pomona is one of the most prominent schools in the country to publicly advertise itself as welcoming to undocumented students. It offers need-based aid to all students it admits. Oxtoby has been a staunch advocate of education for undocumented immigrants, saying the country has a moral obligation to help excellent students of all backgrounds who graduated from U.S. high schools.

“There’s nothing to hide,” Oxtoby said in 2014 about the college’s stance on undocumented students. “It’s not a secret. We’re proud of this.”

On the flip side, there is real pressure to enforce immigration laws, and Trump begins his presidency with a promise to voters to do so.

Federal immigration actions pose questions for colleges about undocumented students

But students at many schools pushed back with protests and rallies.

Some Brown students plan to join a protest Wednesday afternoon. In a letter published in the Brown Daily Herald Monday, professors and students signed a letter to Brown University leaders:

Dear President Christina Paxson P’19 and Provost Richard Locke P’17:
We write with some urgency to request that you investigate the possibility of our campus serving as a sanctuary for our students, our staff members and their family members who face imminent deportation.
We have reason to believe that Providence Police officers cannot enter the campus without permission of the University. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers are also subject to similar restrictions based on a 2011 Memo regarding places of worship, schools and hospitals. Given that many students, staff members and their families are directly affected by this issue, we urge the University to immediately work to develop a protocol for the University serving as a sanctuary campus.
Our active support of our most vulnerable members will demonstrate Brown’s commitment to defend our values of inclusion, justice and humanity. It may give comfort to those, especially within the Brown community, who are frightened and unsure about their future and safety.
We thank you for your consideration.

Cass Cliatt, a spokesperson for Brown, responded by email:

“Many of the statements that the president-elect articulated during the campaign with regards to immigration and undocumented members of communities across the United States are prompting uncertainty, fear and anxiety. In making a request for Brown to establish a sanctuary protocol, members of our community have referenced a 2011 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo that contains a discussion of enforcement priorities of the current administration. 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.
“Brown is very serious in its commitment to supporting undocumented members of our community, and we continue to provide them with as much information as we can make available regarding the law and potential outcomes if policies change under the new administration.”