Students at more than 100 universities around the country have written letters, signed petitions, and protested to demand that their schools commit to protecting undocumented students who risk losing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status that shields them from deportation under the Trump administration.
In response, administrators on more than 20 campuses have committed to naming themselves “sanctuary campuses.” The term doesn’t have a specific legal definition. Instead, it echoes the policies of “sanctuary cities” like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, which have policies that limit cooperation between local authorities and federal immigration officers.
Even President-elect Donald Trump’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, called itself a sanctuary and promised to only allow federal immigration authorities on campus if they have a warrant. Penn administrators also said they will not share information about students’ immigration status unless required by law or subpoena.
But not all colleges are going along with the trend.
Officials in Texas and Georgia, for instance, have already threatened to cut funding to schools that designate themselves as sanctuaries—meaning that schools there have to take that threat into consideration. This mirrors the threat by Trump to defund these sanctuary cities in his first 100 days in office.
“They’re welcome to do whatever they want, but there are consequences,” Georgia state lawmaker Earl Ehrhart told WABE. “If they completely ignore the statutes in this country and proceed with illegal behavior, then the taxpayers of the state of Georgia don’t need to be funding them.”
Some schools–including Rice University, Washington State University, and Princeton University, among others–have affirmed their commitment to undocumented students by taking steps like promising to support DACA or refusing to release private information, including immigration status, unless required to by law or subpoena, but have stopped short of officially declaring themselves sanctuaries, likely in an effort to protect themselves legally and financially.
“I don’t think there’s any useful application of the idea of sanctuary to universities,” Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber told the Daily Princetonian. “It doesn’t clarify anything to use a concept that may wrongly suggest that somehow universities can insulate themselves from or exempt themselves from the application of law.”
New Mexico State University Chancellor Garrey Carruthers wrote in a memo that he will neither name the university an official sanctuary campus, nor ban federal law enforcement agents from coming onto campus.
“Doing so would jeopardize our federal funding, as well as our ability to issue student visas to our international students and visiting scholars,” Carruthers explained in the memo.
But according to some immigration lawyers, vowing to protect undocumented students shouldn’t put them at risk with the federal government. The Fourth Amendment protects students’ records, and warrants are required for immigration enforcement actions. Schools, including universities, are considered “sensitive locations,” according to a 2011 Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo, which was updated in 2016. ICE actions at these locations require either special approval or extreme circumstances that require immediate action, like a danger to public safety.
“Universities and the colleges have at their disposition a lot of the law and tools to be able to protect the students,” Undocumented Student Legal Services Center executive director María Blanco told me last month. “If you really look behind what people are asking for when they say sanctuary, they are asking for some really doable things.”
While Trump has promised to cancel some executive actions, memos, and orders issued by Obama–which would include DACA–and cancel federal funding to Sanctuary Cities in his first 100 days, no one from the Trump transition team has announced plans to revoke or revisit the sensitive locations policy, ACLU legislative counsel Joanne Lin told me.
Versions of the sensitive location policy have existed under both Democrat and Republican administrations, including George W. Bush, Lin explained. Still, the policy is not a statute or regulation, so it is subject to the discretion of the incoming administration to discontinue it, modify it, or leave it alone.
“Based on who we are seeing the incoming administration surround themselves with immigration adviso-wise, it’s our sense that this policy is in high danger of being rescinded,” Immigrant Legal Resource Center managing attorney Jose Magaña-Salgado told me. “We are going to continue to advocate the incoming administration and congressional partners to try to protect it.”