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What Makes a Sanctuary?

On November 16, college students all over the country walked out of afternoon classes to demonstrate support for Movimiento Cosecha’s #SanctuaryCampus campaign, which “is about claiming spaces of resistance and protection for our country’s most vulnerable people—including undocumented immigrants, Muslims, Black people, and queer folks,” according to the organization’s website. Tufts students joined in the movement, collecting outside of Olin Hall shortly after 2:30 pm. There, the organizers of the walkout explained the movement, shared personal narratives, and appealed to the Tufts administration to become a sanctuary campus. President Anthony Monaco, who was present at the rally, addressed the crowd and affirmed the university’s commitment to its students and promised to figure out the institution’s next steps to help protect undocumented students on campus. While President Monaco did not declare Tufts to be a sanctuary campus at the rally, his commitment to exploring the option reflects a growing trend across the nation—educational institutions are determining how to best protect undocumented students under a new and undefined political landscape.

Although the establishment of a sanctuary campus is relatively new, sanctuary policies have precedent and have been enacted throughout history, often in sites like churches or cities, according to Sociology Professor Helen Marrow. While there is no official definition of a “sanctuary city” (or a sanctuary university), the contemporary movement started in churches, during the 1980s, to protect Central Americans who were denied refugee status and at risk for deportation. Although each case is carried out differently, sanctuary cities generally commit to resisting federal or state immigration enforcement policies in an effort to protect undocumented immigrants. San Francisco, which became a sanctuary city in 1989, asserted its non-compliance with the federal government’s immigration enforcement policies and added an ordinance prohibiting the use of city funds to assist the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Somerville is one of the 32 sanctuary cities in America, a status that Mayor Joseph Curtatone has vowed to protect under a Trump presidency. In an open letter written on November 21, Mayor Curtatone wrote, “One-third of Somerville’s residents are documented immigrants. These are our neighbors. We will not treat them like suspects at every turn. Sanctuary means we don’t hand over persons for deportation for civil offenses like driving with a broken tail light. That breaks up families and fuels a broken immigration system.” The number of sanctuary cities in the US has increased over the past 30 years, each negotiating the precarious distinction between breaking federal law (which localities are not allowed to do) and engaging in, as Marrow said, “non-cooperation.” Marrow explained that most sanctuary cities “don’t necessarily ask about or engage in activities that ask about legal status or disclose legal status to federal immigration officials.”

The movement to create sanctuary campuses highlights the differences between localities and educational institutions, which have different options and resources. Marrow explained that campuses could use “student privacy laws and…Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to protect the information of all students and not disclose that information.” It is currently illegal for educational universities to violate FERPA, which establishes a student’s right to keep educational records private, unless there is a federal or state-issued warrant.

One of the first educational institutions to declare itself a sanctuary campus on November of this past year, Wesleyan University worked to craft specific clauses that not only state the institution’s commitment to protecting undocumented students, but also position the University to have legal constitutional backing with these actions. In an article for the Wesleyan Argus, student Jake Lahut outlined this process, which required the Wesleyan University President Michael Roth to collaborate with legal counsel to write the clauses, modeled after sanctuary city ordinances. They give the University authority to prevent staff from assisting ICE and are designed to help legally protect the institution, especially if the government attempts to withdraw federal funding or issue a lawsuit, as a response to if (and when) the university fails to comply with federal law. However, universities across the country who are researching sanctuary status are not sure how they could respond to physical raids on campuses. Lahut notes that while Wesleyan asserted that it would not voluntarily aid the government in the exposure or expulsion of undocumented students, they will not be able to stop the federal government from conducting raids.

Marrow also acknowledges the limitations of the movement. “Sanctuary anything—at a city level or a campus level—can’t offer holistic true protection,” and while institutions can speak out or “agree not to do more than federal and state law require them to do, they can’t actively break the law.”

Despite this, there is still significant symbolic power in becoming a sanctuary campus. Becoming a sanctuary campus expresses support for undocumented students and their families, and reaffirms their right to live and learn in the United States. Marrow referred to the symbolic implications of becoming a sanctuary campus as “enormous” for “the message it sends to the rest of the university—not just the student body but for everyone in the community that this is the stated principle and moral values that Tufts stands for.”

Senior Blaine Dzwonczyk, a member of United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ), believes that Tufts has an imperative to stand by these moral values by declaring a sanctuary campus. She said, “If Tufts wants to live up to its alleged values of social justice, the administration needs to respond clearly to UIJ’s demands, and use its power and resources to stand between undocumented people and the threat of deportation.” Students call for Tufts to act on its commitment to creating an inclusive and safe community. She added, “Tufts has an opportunity right now to refuse to comply with an immigration system that is already violent and destructive to so many people, and which will only cause more damage under a Trump administration.”

According to Marrow, Tufts was a sanctuary place at another point in history, when the estate was a stop on the Underground Railroad that actively resisted the Fugitive Slave Law. Unitarian abolitionist George Luther Stearns used the space that is now Eliot-Pearson to establish a haven for people escaping enslavement. Students involved with the sanctuary campus movement are calling for Tufts to consider its position, power, and obligation to protect its community.

In 2015, Tufts announced it would actively recruit and accept undocumented students. While the University provides support groups and financial aid to undocumented students, there is a general lack of awareness on campus of undocumented students and their experiences. “Tufts students are not informed about what undocumented students are,” said A*, an undocumented first-year. “People don’t realize that having citizenship is a privilege. And sometimes it’s something that’s underestimated. So it’s important to talk about.” However, it is imperative that these dialogues—on campus at Tufts and nationwide—resist the tendency to tokenize undocumented students and consider all undocumented people whose experiences and identities vary. “One undocumented student does not talk on behalf of all of them,” A explained, “We share some experiences but it doesn’t mean we’re the same people.” Furthermore, students advocate respect for the privacy of undocumented individuals. Guadalupe Garcia, a sophomore and member of UIJ, said, “Keeping in mind that this is also a relatively new movement and that so many students are still scared or wary about being vocal about their status, [w]hen someone shares that with you it’s extremely intimate and it’s something you should be really careful about repeating back to others.”

Students say the movement should not only work to raise general awareness on campus, but also to provide more services to undocumented students. According to Garcia, “If Tufts does declare [a sanctuary campus], there is still so much to be done. The school is still trying to meet the initial demands made by UIJ when we first pushed Tufts to openly accept undocumented students, one being creating a space for undocumented students (amongst several other demands)….Some other universities have spaces like these and Tufts should really look into making this space a reality, looking to other undocumented-friendly universities as a model.” M*, an undocumented sophomore, described another means of support for undocumented students. “Having somebody on campus that is knowledgeable about the issues of undocumented students” and can provide support either to find “opportunities” for undocumented students or “get those that can’t work legally prepared for the when they graduate as to what their opportunities can be” would provide more institutional support for undocumented students, they said.

Marrow spoke to the urgency of the sanctuary campus movement, and expressed optimism that “we haven’t seen universities jump in line this quickly on a lot of things in a long time.” Still, the uncertain future demands that we, as students and community members, must be prepared—for vigilantism, for potential raids, for upholding moral purpose. “Every student on this university should be asking [themselves] what happens if someone walks onto this campus with a federal warrant,” Marrow said, “What do all of us do?” The success of any movement to establish a sanctuary and protect undocumented people seems to depend on widespread community support and mobilization. “Everyone should care about the undocumented rights movement beyond just having friends or classmates that are undocumented,” said Olivia Dehm, a senior and member of UIJ. “No human being is illegal…it should be so wrong to ever consider that a human being, just on the basis of their geographic location, can be treated as if their very existence is illegal.” Dehm pointed out this is especially important in the United States, which was formed through the seizure and occupation of Indigenous land and genocide of Indigenous peoples by colonizers.

Students and professors alike have identified a moral imperative to resist any effort to further dehumanize and alienate a group of people. As Dehm said, “I want people to consider that all undocumented people have rights, not just bright college students…Our undocumented students have families, and their families have rights too. This movement [to establish sanctuary spaces] needs to be fiercely inclusive.”

Dzwonczyk added, “Tufts cannot simply welcome undocumented students when it’s convenient for the institution, or make empty promises about becoming a ‘sanctuary;’ they need to take bold, concrete steps—as other universities have done—to protect undocumented students, staff, and their families.” The sanctuary campus movement works not only for those under the jurisdiction of academic institutions, but also for all those living under the threat of detainment and deportation. Ultimately, action on campus must be informed by a greater awareness of the scope of what’s at risk. M expressed their hope that, through the sanctuary campus movement, “we can continue to work together to make this campus different in how it perceives the undocumented population as whole, not just on this campus.”


*names are removed to protect the identity and safety of the undocumented individual



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