New face of the sanctuary movement: US college campuses

Thousands of college students signed petitions and walked out of classes this week, urging university administrators to turn their campuses into sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. 

Peter Hvizdak/New Haven Register/AP
New Haven Alder Darryl Brackeen, Jr., a community organizer who started the petition to defend New Haven's Status as a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants, (l.), with Dax Crocker (r.), a third-year Yale Master of Divinity student, calls on all Yale University students to join together and declare Yale as a 'Sanctuary Campus.' protecting undocumented immigrant college students during a rally at Yale's Cross Campus on Nov. 16, 2016.

Thousands of students across the country left their classrooms, dorm rooms, and student unions Wednesday to take part in a nationwide walkout, urging their universities to become "sanctuary campuses" for undocumented immigrants.

The effort, led by advocacy group Movimiento Cosecha, was accompanied at many schools by petitions asking administrators to adopt "sanctuary campus" policies. While the demands varied from school to school – ranging from giving undocumented students access to financial aid, to asking that their colleges refuse to share as much information as legally possible with federal authorities, to demanding that universities not allow immigration officers on school grounds – the message, in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump's election victory, was the same throughout: "We are claiming a space of resistance and protection for our country's most vulnerable people."

In some ways, the trend is a continuation of a sanctuary movement that rose to national attention in the 1980s, as cities around the United States vowed to protect undocumented residents by not prosecuting those who violated federal immigration law, and gained traction among churches in the mid-2000s.

But in another way, says Linda Rabben, an associate research professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, what we’re seeing on college campuses is “very different.” 

For many of these students who "have spontaneously taken the lead," immigration reform is a personal, rather than political, issue, say Dr. Rabben and the organizers of the campus walkouts. Thanks to the Obama Administration's DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) initiative, campus diversity recruitment efforts, and a push in recent years for undocumented immigrants to "come out" as such, more college students than ever either know somebody who is, or are themselves, undocumented, experts say. And, with a Trump presidency and the perceived threat of mass deportation fast approaching, they’re preparing for the worst. 

Making the sanctuary campus phenomenon especially noteworthy, Rabben tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview, is the active role of undocumented persons themselves in the activism effort. 

"Some of the students involved in the movement are themselves undocumented, so they have a very personal stake in what’s happening," she says. "And that’s relatively unusual, because often unauthorized migrants or asylum seekers hide in the shadows."

"They don’t feel that they can take the risk of standing up and saying, 'We can’t let this happen,' whereas the Dreamers and other young unauthorized migrants are standing up and saying, 'I’m not afraid, I will not let you deport me,'" she continues. "That is something new."  

Dax Crocker, a third-year master of divinity graduate student at Yale Divinity School and one of the organizers of Yale University's campus walkout on Wednesday, says he believes the momentum of the movement at Yale and elsewhere stems from the "human aspect" that comes with studying immigration in a diverse college setting. 

The modern-day campus is "an intellectually rich environment for people to understand the issue of immigration outside the politics of it," Mr. Crocker tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "There’s a human aspect of it that universities are fostering, and that is why people are getting behind it."

"This movement is not political," he adds. "This movement is not ‘anti-Trump.’ This movement is a human dignity movement."

For the student activists at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., the walkout and demands are primarily an effort to "protect" and "support" undocumented members of their community "in this time of fear and uncertainty." 

They also see it as a way of holding their university accountable for the values it prides itself on. 

"Middlebury promotes itself as an institution that values inclusion and diversity," write Middlebury's walkout organizers – Jessica Gutierrez, Austin Kahn, Samantha Lamont, Robert Zarate-Morales, Krista Karlson, Patrick McElravey, and Erin Reid – in an email to the Monitor. "In order to fulfill those values, the College must commit resources to supporting and protecting the students who give our campus the diversity it is so proud of."

Whether universities can – or will – adopt some of the larger demands put forth by students, such as refusing to cooperate with federal officials seeking a specific student, is a complex legal matter that remains to be seen, experts say. 

"I think it’s a symbolic effort that will make undocumented students feel more secure on campuses that adopt this," Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell University Law School, told Inside Higher Ed. "I’m not sure, however, that such sanctuary resolutions carry much legal weight.... While these sanctuary ordinances and resolutions can make administrators aware of how undocumented students are feeling and make sure that they think carefully about cooperating with immigration officials, at the end of the day an immigration official can always get a warrant if necessary."

Furthermore, even for the most willing administrations, "there are many avenues for retaliation against bold activism," writes Elizabeth Cohen, an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y., in an email. "There is a limit to what campuses can accomplish," and "school administrators will have to navigate tricky waters if they experience a version of the threats that have been made against sanctuary cities." Further complicating the issue, she notes, is schools' reliance on federal money and donations. 

Regardless of the tangible action ultimately taken, the student activists see hope for the future in the movement's momentum. 

"Even just the idea of walking out of classes to stand with those facing the most terror is powerful and symbolic," says Emma Kahn, a junior anthropology major and one of the organizers of the walkout at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

"I think colleges like Tufts can be such powerful sites of activism because we can see campus-specific structures of power that almost directly mirror those of American society, in particular," Ms. Kahn writes in an email to the Monitor. "To be able to push our community to stand for progressive values gives many student activists hope that we can do the same beyond our time here."

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