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Colleges Announce They Are ‘Sanctuary Campuses,’ Hoping to Soothe Students’ Fears

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This week, a school district in Fort Worth, Texas passed a resolution declaring their school district “welcoming and safe” for all undocumented students in response to calls from parents and students who feared being deported.

The action follows those of some college campuses and a handful of K-12 school districts who are looking to reassure their immigrant population that their citizenship status will not jeopardize their status as students, and that the districts will not “hand over” individuals to immigration officers.

The movement for these “sanctuary campuses”in higher education–a topic that was discussed a recent EWA seminar–started last year, when as a presidential candidate, Donald Trump threatened to overturn the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

DACA allows certain undocumented immigrants to apply for a status that enables them to obtain a drivers’ license and some taxpayer benefits, in addition to being able to enroll in some public universities, sometimes even paying in-state tuition. (Public K-12 schools are open to all students, regardless of immigration status.) Important qualifiers for DACA eligibility include never having been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor.

Since taking office, President Trump has softened his language regarding these younger immigrants, saying on Fox & Friends in January that his new plan for DACA will be ”very firm, but it’s going to have a lot of heart.” Still, after President Trump’s first travel ban order in January, when legal citizens were denied entry to the U.S. before a federal judge ruled the executive order unconstitutional, many undocumented students fear that deportation could come at any time.

Reed College was one of the first postsecondary institutions to declare itself a sanctuary campus last fall. In a statement, the college’s President John R. Kroger said Reed won’t assist immigration officers if they pursue of undocumented students on its campus. Additionally, the college meets the full financial need of all its students, providing institutional financial aid to make up for the federal aid undocumented students are unable to receive.

Several other colleges have declared themselves sanctuaries in support of these students, including University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College and Wesleyan University. Many more colleges, however, have decided against using the sanctuary label even as they offer policies in support for the members of their communities who are undocumented immigrants, noting that they must obey federal law enforcement. That list includes Harvard University, Princeton University and the University of California system.

Indeed, it is unclear how much protection colleges and universities could actually provide students if faced with immigration actions; these institutions must comply with federal laws. Additionally, some policymakers have discussed possibly denying  access to federal funding and immigration visas that enable foreign students, faculty and staff to come to American universities to any university that does resist immigration enforcement. Again though, such penalties largely have not been enacted yet, so the consequences are unknown.

There are no clear federal legal precedents for undocumented immigrants in postsecondary education. The Supreme Court decided back in the 1982 Plyler v. Doe case it is illegal for a public K-12 school to deny a student access based on citizenship documentation. That ruling is not considered to apply to higher education though, meaning the access students who are undocumented immigrants have to public colleges and universities depends largely on the laws of individual states.

In general, immigration officers have tended to avoid schools. According to an internal memo from 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a policy to avoid raids in “sensitive” spaces like churches, schools or hospitals.

But fear is often a guiding principle that deters students from continuing their education or even filling out scholarship forms out of concern of being logged into a system that could later be used to target them.

Alonso Reyna Rivarola, who works with undocumented students at the University of Utah, told The Hechinger Report that he has seen “a heightened sense of fear” and has to instruct students to keep going to class “until it’s taken away.”

“DACA has created a database that has been used to help a large number of people. It could obviously be used now in a way that could harm those people, and that is the concern,” Terry Hartle, the senior vice president of the American Council on Education, told Inside Higher Ed.

Hartle pointed out that the president explicitly stated he would target drug dealers, criminals and gang members.

“By definition if you are in DACA, you are none of those things,” Hartle said.

Currently, more than 750,000 individuals are enrolled under DACA, and undocumented immigrants from Mexico make up three-quarters of all DACA recipients.

Inside Higher Ed published an op-ed from three university of California, Irvine professors that includes a guide on how individual faculty and administrators can help undocumented students, suggesting they keep students’ identities confidential, point students to financial resources available to them and lobby for more financial resources.