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Why universities are resisting the term 'sanctuary campus'

KUOW Photo/Liz Jones
University of Washington students in caps and gowns and cherry blossoms.

Since Donald Trump’s election, a sanctuary movement has popped up at college campuses across the United States. 

Petitions are circulating at nearly 200 schools, by one count, including University of Washington, Washington State University and several others in the state. The petitions aim to protect undocumented students and staff from immigration enforcement.

“To me personally it would be a relief to not have to worry and stress about if my education would be taken away from me at any given point in time,” said Anna, a student at Eastern Washington University near Spokane. Anna is a pseudonym; she asked to remain anonymous because she does not have legal status in the U.S. She moved here from Mexico when she was five years old and is now a junior at Eastern.

At Eastern, a sanctuary petition calls for the university to protect students’ personal information, refuse to cooperate with deportations and create a multicultural resource center.

Anna said sanctuary protections would allow undocumented students to “pay attention to our studies instead of having to worry if this is going to be my last day here at school. Is this going to be my last day here seeing my friends and family?”

Sanctuary is mostly a symbolic term that school administrators appear reluctant to adopt.

“There is no legal definition of what a sanctuary campus is, and having this denomination carries no weight,” said University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce.

Immigration agents already confront special rules for school campuses, which are considered “sensitive locations” for enforcement actions.

2011 policy memo from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) outlines measures to “ensure enforcement actions do not occur at nor are focused on sensitive locations” except in certain circumstances, such as a threat to national security. Churches, hospitals, funerals, weddings and public rallies are also sensitive locations.

Responding to the petitions, several school administrators have said they can’t restrict ICE from campus. But they outlined how they limit cooperation. One common way is to prohibit campus police from questioning or reporting a person’s immigration status.  

The petitions and letters have made a difference, said Dr. Marisa Herrera, University of Washington’s executive director of Community Building and Inclusion. She said they’ve prompted fruitful discussions around the country.

The term “sanctuary” is also a lightning rod issue.

President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to block funds to cities with sanctuary policies, and some lawmakers are seeking similar action for sanctuary campus.

Eastern’s board of trustees took public comment on their petition in November and declined the label of sanctuary campus. A statement from the board describes Eastern as "much more than a sanctuary,” highlighting the school’s anti-discrimination policies and protections for all students regardless of immigration status.

Xavier Maciel, a first-year student at Pomona College in Southern California, is keeping a nationaltally of the campus petitions and responses. So far only a few campuses have adopted the sanctuary label. The majority have not responded.

Chandan Reddy, a co-author of the University of Washington petition, says they are taking a wait-and-see approach before pressing administrators for a response.

“We need to know more before we can enumerate to the UW administration what we believe are crucial components of sanctuary,” Reddy said by email. “We will all know a lot more when we get a sense of the Trump administration’s position on DACA students.”

DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is a program President Barack Obama created to give temporary legal status to students and youth brought here as children.

Reddy said this focused effort also helps the campus community be ready and organized for potential changes ahead.

Anna, the undocumented student at Eastern, said she hopes this effort will help people understand what students like her face, from complexities with financial aid forms to racial discrimination on campus.

“Life on campus is different for undocumented students,” Anna said. “There are things that happen to us that we can't tell anybody because there's nobody on campus that actually understands what we're going through. Like if a family member was deported who would we talk to? We’re kind of scared to come out as undocumented.”

Year started with KUOW: 2006