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Student protesters demand that universities become sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants

A view of Harvard University in 2012 in Cambridge, Mass. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)
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Students at colleges across the country planned and held demonstrations to pressure their universities to protect undocumented students when Donald Trump becomes president.

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

Enforcement of immigration laws was a cornerstone of Trump’s campaign, an issue many voters strongly endorsed but that has created considerable concern on many campuses for undocumented students who have been promised an education. At many schools, while some students celebrated Trump’s win, others were in tears, worried about the threat of deportation for themselves or their families.

Students, faculty and others at many colleges this week called on administrators to designate their schools “sanctuary campuses,” in some cases pushing the idea with walkouts or other demonstrations, and in others, meeting with administrators to talk about it. A student at Pomona College, Xavier Maciel, collected petitions from dozens of colleges, after seeing faculty at his school start one. While his immigration status is legal, his sister is in the DACA program as a student at Rutgers and his parents are undocumented immigrants who have lived here 22 years.  “This movement is important to me because it involves helping and securing the safety for my community,” he said.  “Sanctuary provides a safety net and demonstrates public commitment to vulnerable students …”

At Harvard, faculty members wrote a letter published in the Harvard Crimson, asking the administration to take certain steps, including denouncing hate speech, responding concretely to a student petition asking for more support for undocumented students, declaring the university a “sanctuary campus,” reaffirming current admission and financial-aid policies regarding those students, protecting student privacy by refusing to release information about citizenship status, and making it “clear that Harvard will use all legal and practical means at our disposal to protect all members of our community in the months and years to come.”

In about 24 hours, more than 35o faculty members had added their support; Henry Louis Gates Jr. was one of the first to add his name.

Harvard President Drew Faust also issued a letter to the campus community Tuesday afternoon, which included these thoughts: “We must condemn and resist hatred, intimidation, and intolerance in every form. Working together, we have an obligation to provide all members of our community with an environment in which they can live in safety and dignity.”

Trump said this weekend that he would immediately deport 2 million to 3 million illegal immigrants, targeting people who have been convicted of crimes. The Obama administration focused removal efforts on criminals as well, deporting a record number of people from 2009 to 2014.

It’s not known how many undocumented immigrants nationally are college students. Some of those students are protected from deportation through Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative, frequently referred to as DACA, but some are not. People in the DACA database do not have criminal records — but the existence of a database has made many students and families anxious about how the federal government, under a new administration, might use that personally identifying information. There are more than 700,000 names in the database.

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

At Princeton, students have organized a walkout Thursday afternoon to call on the administration to make it a “sanctuary campus.”

“Princeton must take a stand against the hate and violence that Trump has incited,” they wrote in a social media post promoting the event. “ … We cannot let Princeton be neutral in a time of such danger and urgency to our communities.”

A spokesman for the university said the administration has been discussing the issue with students, but no decision has been made yet.

Meanwhile, protests were underway elsewhere.

Brown University’s president, Christina Paxson, and provost responded to petitions with a letter published in the Brown Daily Herald Wednesday expressing “deep empathy and desire to protect members of our community.”  She wrote about efforts already underway to increase support for students enrolled in DACA, and how Trump has promised to rescind DACA and other executive orders.  “Brown will continue to support members of our community to the fullest extent possible while complying with the law,” she wrote.

The petitions suggest that Brown (and other universities and colleges) may have a special ability to prevent law enforcement officials from entering campus to enforce immigration policy.

Based on consultation with legal counsel, we have come to understand that private universities and colleges do not have such protection to offer legal sanctuary from members of law enforcement or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  While we wish we could offer absolute protection to members of our community who are threatened by possible changes in policy, it would be irresponsible to promise protections that we cannot legally deliver.

She wrote, “Threats of deportation personally affect many individuals at Brown, their friends and families and — as a result — our entire campus. We are fully dedicated to continuing to work with affected members of our community in the coming months to ensure their safety and security.”

The demonstrations generated intense opposition, as well, on social media, from people frustrated about illegal immigration.