Students push for ‘sanctuary campuses’

UMass officials sympathetic to demands

UMASS AMHERST OFFICIALS, under pressure from students, said on Friday they were committed to making the campus a safe haven for undocumented students, faculty, and staff. But they stopped short of meeting the students’ demand that the school be declared a sanctuary campus.

The notion of a sanctuary campus popped up over the last week in college and university social media circles in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. The idea, a takeoff on the sanctuary city movement, quickly caught on with student organizers who wanted to make their campuses a safe haven from Trump’s campaign trail threat to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

By Wednesday, thousands of students in over 100 colleges across the country organized protests and wrote petitions demanding that their schools quickly adopt policies to protect undocumented international and immigrant students, faculty, and staff.  At UMass Amherst, over 800 students marched through the flagship campus and delivered hundreds of letters to the chancellor’s office demanding that the campus be declared a sanctuary. They were joined by about 600 students on the Amherst College and Mt. Holyoke campuses.  

Debbie Anker, a professor at Harvard Law School and director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, said that while there has been significant amount of research into the issues that crop up in sanctuary cities, a group of Harvard law students is just starting to tease out the details of what it will mean for schools to become sanctuaries. “This is all so new, ” said Anker.  “It’s only been a week since the election but already students are coming together to have these conversations, which is heartening.”

While specifics differed from school to school, some basic tenets of a sanctuary campus were reflected in the demands made by UMass students that campus officials and police officers will not collaborate with federal immigration and custom enforcement officials seeking to identify, detain, question, and potentially deport undocumented immigrants.  The UMass students also want the school to engage community members around the issue by hosting forums and other public meetings.

In a written statement given to several hundred UMass Amherst students on Friday, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy welcomed the sentiments of the students seeking support for members of their campus community who may be vulnerable in the wake of a dramatic change in federal immigration policies.

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“I and my administration are fully committed, as we always have been, to ensuring a safe and welcoming environment for every member of our community, regardless of immigration status,” Subbaswamy said in the statement. “Please be assured that the protections that are being called for in the petition are in place and that this campus administration is fully committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of all of our students, especially those who are most vulnerable in these trying times.”

The chancellor said the state institution is “bound to comply with state and federal law” and added that “enforcement of federal immigration policy is not within our remit.” He said UMass officials would not gather information about the immigration status of students or other people they encounter during their duties and would not share information about students unless compelled to do so by court order. He said a student legal office would assist students with immigration issues and undocumented people who came into the country as children would be eligible for in-state tuition.

After hearing Subbaswamy’s statement read aloud by a fellow student, Santiago Vidales picked up the megaphone.  “Did the chancellor mention that UMass was going to be named a sanctuary campus?” he asked.  The crowd roared, “No!”  Vidales responded: “You have to name the problem, name the solution.”
Vidales then organized a small group of students who went up to Subbaswamy’s office to see if he would declare UMass Amherst a sanctuary campus but he was out of town.   “We asked if they could get him on the phone or text him,” Regina East told the crowd when they returned. “People’s lives are at stake here.”