Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric toward immigrant groups—threats of a registry for Muslim citizens, a ban on immigration from the Middle East and mass deportations, to name a few—coupled with early warning signs of an authoritarian streak in his ruling style, have sparked massive backlash from activist groups across the country, including those on college campuses. Among the most prominent ideas to have emerged from campus activists is the sanctuary campus.
In preparing for Trump’s presidency, students around the country are demanding school administrations draft policies that would essentially make their schools a haven for undocumented immigrant students were Trump to roll back existing federal protections. Tufts United For Immigrant Justice, a student activist group at Tufts University, is at the forefront of the movement.
Students are calling for a sanctuary campus policy in the vein of the dozens of so-called sanctuary cities across the country, including Somerville. The policy would restrict school officials from helping federal officials build a deportation case against a student.
“Our largest hopes for the administration are that they do everything they legally can to put themselves in between [the Federal Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and undocumented community members,” says Emma Kahn, board member of Tufts United. “We are actively working with them to talk about hiring new legal help and implementing programs to protect undocumented students from authorities, as much as possible.”
Trump has promised—with varying degrees of force—to carry out mass deportations of undocumented immigrants since launching his campaign. There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and plenty of students on campuses across would be at risk.
Many undocumented students enrolled in college are protected by a 2012 Obama Administration executive order that grants two-year deportation deferrals for those who immigrated to the United States before the age of 16 and are enrolled either as students or in the military, so long as they pose no criminal threat. The order borrows language from the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), a piece of proposed legislation that has failed to make it through Congress several times since it was first introduced in 2001.
But executive orders are not laws. While the DREAM Act lies in wait for a favorable congress, Trump could repeal Obama’s order as soon as he takes office on January 20.
Tufts United is among hundreds of similar groups on campuses across the country advocating for such policy reforms. Some have already succeeded. Administrators at Wesleyan University declared the Connecticut campus a sanctuary in late November, as did Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania.
Others, like Harvard University, have taken public stances against the idea. University President Drew G. Faust said in December that the school will not designate itself a sanctuary campus; administrators there argue that the term carries little legal weight and, that by drawing attention to Harvard’s undocumented community, the designation could actually put them in more danger.
The Tufts administration has, so far, walked a tight line. Officials haven’t fully committed to sanctuary campus status, but they haven’t ruled it out, either. According to Tufts United, activists and the administration are still negotiating. In President Anthony Monaco’s most recent statement on the issue, he said the university will not provide information to federal agents regarding student citizenship status or help federal agents enforce immigration laws unless the university is issued a subpoena, court order or warrant. The university will provide legal counsel to any student that needs it, he said. Monaco has joined 250 other campus chiefs to sign a petition calling for the continuation and expansion of Obama’s executive order.
“Tufts was founded as an institution that welcomes and values students from every walk of life,” says Monaco. ”And we have a moral responsibility to safeguard the wellbeing of every member of our community. We will not waiver from those core values.”
He added that the university would cooperate with investigations into “serious criminal activity or threats to public safety or security.”
The stance, he say, is consistent with that of Somerville city government, but Somerville’s policy goes a little further—no city official, including police officers, can even inquire as to a citizen’s immigration status. The city has also promised to forgo federal funding if Trump were to cut it over the city’s sanctuary status, which he has threatened to do. But the city also holds more power over citizens than a school does its students.
Though the campus now has policies similar to the city’s, the administration has yet to officially declare Tufts a sanctuary campus.
This, to Tufts United, is an important point. The declaration, says Kahn, is “the symbolic articulation of standing with undocumented students in the face of increased structural violence.”
If the university were to make the declaration now, activists like Tufts United would have more leverage in holding the administration to account, if and when a Trump administration tries to deport students or pull federal funding.
So, while the administration has agreed to implement policies similar to that of its city, the fight isn’t over.
A petition to make the campus a sanctuary has garnered more than 3,000 signatures from current students, alumni, faculty and staff. To put that number in context: There were about 10,700 students enrolled at Tufts as of the fall 2015 semester, according to the most recent data available.
The petition calls for the campus, affiliated campuses, offices and other “structures” to be declared a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. It calls for the university to keep private anything related to a student’s immigration status, provide professional legal services to undocumented students and ban federal agents from entering the campus. Lastly, it calls for the formation of an Office of Undocumented Student Support that would serve as a resource center for those who need it.
The university has committed to keeping immigration statuses private and providing legal services. As for the rest of the list, time will tell. Trump will be sworn in in just a few weeks, and the student group is looking for action now.
“If Tufts fails to act,” the petition reads, “our university’s articulated commitments to diversity, justice and inclusion will reveal themselves to be empty promises. At this moment, we cannot afford silence. ”
Bill Shaner is a contributing writer with Scout Somerville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @Bill_Shaner.