Soon after Donald Trump’s election in November, Jason Ruiz helped launch a petition at the University of Notre Dame calling on the president of the nation’s most prominent Catholic school to declare itself a sanctuary campus and offer protections for undocumented students, staff and family members facing the threat of deportation. Ruiz, an associate professor of American studies and grandson of an undocumented immigrant, hoped to collect a thousand signatures. A day later, more than 4,600 members of the Notre Dame community had signed on.
As the Trump administration enters its third week, questions about immigration policy continue to swirl. Trump’s executive order barring entry to the United States by refugees and people from seven Muslim-majority countries has roused passions on campuses and elsewhere. Ruiz said the call for universities to declare themselves sanctuaries has only become more urgent.
“There is a growing national movement for campus sanctuary,” Ruiz said. “People all over the country have been inspired to start thinking about what special roles universities play in a political climate that’s hostile to undocumented people, including undocumented students.”
The push for sanctuary campus status unfolding at Notre Dame is also playing out at schools across the country amid renewed fears about the fate of undocumented students. But while hundreds of schools have told their communities that they will seek to protect affected students, far fewer have embraced the “sanctuary” label. Some say it is a more of a symbolic than legal designation. There’s concern as well that the label will raise the ire of a White House pressed by its supporters to take additional action on immigration.
During his campaign, Trump had promised to end the Obama administration immigration policy known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The program allows some undocumented immigrants who entered the country before they turned 16 to remain to work or study for renewable two-year periods. As of December, about 752,000 immigrants had obtained DACA aid, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees the program. It is not clear how many undocumented students are enrolled in colleges and universities, but an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year.
Trump called DACA an illegal amnesty, and his promise to end it was cheered by his supporters who felt Obama had been too lenient with undocumented immigrants. During the campaign Trump said he would “immediately terminate” the program. But he has not yet done so, and in recent weeks he has expressed a desire to work out a solution. Some conservatives have voiced frustration that the new administration has yet to say it will bring the program to a halt.
Sensing that DACA could be in danger, colleges and universities have sought to address the impact that ending it would have on their campuses and assess their role in responding to students worried that they could be forced to leave school and even the country.
“The rhetoric of the Trump campaign was filled with threats of mass deportation and so a natural response to that was trying to find a way of expressing a refusal to cooperate with what was then described as a new deportation force,” said Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, which was one of the first schools to declare itself a sanctuary campus and continues to use the term.
“I have read other presidents saying that the concept of sanctuary campuses has no basis in law. I’m not a lawyer, but it is pretty clear to me that mass deportation doesn’t have any basis in American law,” Roth said in an interview Wednesday. “And so finding a term that we have in common with some cities and towns across America, as well as campuses, that really just expresses our unwillingness to engage in mass deportation that we saw in authoritarian regimes throughout the 20th century, seems to me a worthwhile thing to express.”
Swarthmore College, another school that declared itself a sanctuary campus after the election, doubled down after Trump issued the temporary travel ban.
“I write today to assure you that we reject the cruel and illogical spirit of these orders which, at their core, challenge our long, proud history as a nation of immigrants,” Swarthmore President Valerie Smith wrote in a letter to the school’s community. “As a nation and as a campus community, we are in unchartered waters with the new administration; our responses must be considered and firm.”
Even as the movement grows in popularity — hundreds of schools have renewed their pledge to support undocumented students — there are questions about just what universities are being asked to do and how much they will commit to do. Most schools that have expressed “sanctuary” goals say that means that they will not share information about students unless the government obtains a court order or subpoena.
“The designation of being a sanctuary campus means, in essence, that you’re not going to voluntarily comply with certain requests,” says Scott Schneider, a higher education lawyer in Louisiana with the firm Fisher Phillips. “It’s the school saying, you just can’t come willy-nilly on campus and get this sort of information. That’s the practical significance of this. But for better or worse, it ain’t difficult at this point to get a warrant to secure that sort of information, so it may be more symbol over substance.”
The campus sanctuary movement has angered Republicans who believe schools that announce such policies are overplaying their hand by signaling a willingness to break the law. Some Republicans are calling for penalties for any school that refuses to follow federal immigration laws.
In December, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca.) introduced the No Funding for Sanctuary Campuses Act, a bill that would cut off federal funding for schools with policies or practices that “violate immigration laws” by not cooperating with federal immigration officials. It also calls on the Department of Homeland Security to maintain a list of sanctuary schools and to notify the education secretary when it determines that a college or university is a sanctuary campus in order to begin the process of ending funding to that institution.
Some states, too, are sending messages that sanctuary campuses are not welcome. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said he would cut funding for any school in the state that calls itself a sanctuary campus. Indiana state Sen. R. Michael Young (R) introduced a bill that would ban “sanctuary campuses” throughout the state. The state had banned sanctuary cities in 2011.
Under federal law, Schneider said, “there would be no basis for the Department of Education or any arm of the government to pull federal funds from a university for refusing to voluntarily cooperate with immigration authorities.”
Funding issues aside, the sanctuary issue is a moral one, said Notre Dame’s Ruiz. When the school’s faculty senate overwhelmingly passed a resolution last month urging Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, to declare the university a sanctuary campus and to halt cooperation with immigration authorities, Ruiz said the message was clear.
“It was the faculty of the university saying to our president, ‘In times such as these we might have to break the law and we support you in that,’” he said.
A Notre Dame spokesman said that the university is committed to DACA students and to providing legal representation for them if needed. But he added that Jenkins has not yet responded to the faculty senate’s resolution.
“Sanctuary means different things to different people,” said Paul Browne, vice president for public affairs and communications at Notre Dame. “No decision has been made at Notre Dame, but watch what we do, not the labels we apply.”