A resistance movement is growing on college campuses across the country. If President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to deport up to three million undocumented people upon his inauguration holds true, the country will come face to face with ethno-racial registries and massive roundups and deportations by law enforcement. These threats are especially palpable for undocumented students studying on U.S. campuses, who not only fear for their education, but their livelihoods as well.
While President Barack Obama’s administration has tallied more than two and a half million deportations as of last year—more than any other administration—Trump has promised to revoke the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which allows illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors to be eligible for work permits and defers deportation for two-year periods. That’s worrisome to student bodies whose campuses have sizeable international populations. In response, college students are urging their respective administrations to establish campuses as sanctuaries and to divest the school’s financial investments from ventures likely to profit from deportation.
A sanctuary campus is one whose administrative body refuses to let Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and law enforcement conduct warrantless searches, requires subpoenas for the dissemination of student/employee records and forbids campus police and security officers from inquiring about students’ documentation status. Oregon State University, Portland State University and California State University’s 23 campuses, among others, have already declared themselves as sanctuary campuses. Students at dozens of other campuses are petitioning and protesting for the same designation.
In November, students at The New School, Greenwich Village’s notoriously progressive private university, wrote an open letter to the school’s president, David Van Zandt, in support of sanctuary status. Of The New School’s diverse student population, roughly 27 percent are international students and reported to be 13,127 students in 2015. In the letter, students wrote, “Many members of our community are under direct threat by the discourse that President-elect Donald J. Trump embodies, and even more by the policies he has proposed. This is a time for responses and actions consistent with our mission to protect vulnerable minorities and fight for social justice. This includes taking a firm position not only on issues of tolerance and respect within our community, but also preemptive action toward looming policy changes that threaten our students and institution.” The letter’s subsequent petition gathered more than 1,200 signatures, according to Alexandra Délano Alonso, a co-author of the letter.
The New School’s financial holdings are a concern to students who worry the school could benefit from investments in companies that profit from deportation.
Alonso, who serves as faculty advisor for the New School Dream Team, a student group that creates campus safe spaces for undocumented students and signed the open letter, added, “We would like to see the university committed to support undocumented students living on campus with housing if they are concerned about going home during school breaks because of raids. If DACA is terminated, many DACA recipients will also lose work eligibility and we would like to know if the university is prepared to provide them with emergency funds.”
Two days later, President Van Zandt responded to the letter in an email, stating, “There have been no changes announced for the student visa program, and we are not aware of any planned changes. Our staff in International Student and Scholar Services will continue to monitor the situation closely…The New School is committed to a just, inclusive, global, and innovative future, which are hallmarks of our enduring traditions and progressive values.”
Meanwhile, other New York schools like Columbia University and New York University proclaimed themselves sanctuary campuses, leaving New School students frustrated. They weren’t alone. Brown University also refused to claim itself as a sanctuary campus, as explained by President Christina Paxson in The Brown Daily Herald. “While we wish we could offer absolute protection to members of our community who are threatened by possible changes in policy, it would be irresponsible to promise protections that we cannot legally deliver,” Paxson wrote.
The New School’s financial holdings are a concern to students who worry the school could benefit from investments in companies that enable, profit from or perpetuate deportation and detention in the U.S. “Their hesitance to provide information [about such potential holdings] is problematic, particularly considering that their purpose is to examine the social responsibility of institutional investments,” says Mohammad Hamad, a New School student activist who chairs the Students for Justice in Palestine. Politically charged divestment isn’t unordinary, especially when U.S colleges and universities hold some $400 billion in endowments, with more than a quarter of that invested in publicly traded companies, as reported in a New School 2012-2013 investors’ report. In 2014, The New School leveraged its institutional financial wealth to divest from oil. Of The New School’s investments, approximately $94.6 million of its portfolio is managed by hedge funds. When asked if President Van Zandt would conduct a self-audit of holdings that may pose a conflict of interest, the school responded, “We will be looking at the president-elect’s policy decisions very closely once he is in office. We will then consider and explore various options.”
Three weeks later, however, in the wake of increasing pressure from students, academics and the public, Van Zandt, with the Board of Trustees, announced the university would indeed “welcome, admit and support students without regard to their citizenship status. This resolution includes a commitment to protect undocumented students by withholding records that may disclose citizenship status to any law enforcement authority without a court order or a legally enforceable subpoena” and prevent law enforcement from entering “premises the university owns or controls for the purpose of detaining any student, staff or faculty solely based on immigration status for the purpose of possible deportation.”
To some New School students, like Jose Garcia, a Guatemalan native and Fulbright student, the delayed sanctuary declaration was a tepid vote of confidence in the school’s international community. “I want to know if The New School will be an active party in protecting international students. It’s one thing to tell us that ‘Everything’s going to be alright,’ but a totally different thing to get involved and teaching the students about their rights,” he says. “It’s great to see the school’s president addressing the international student community, but I’d suggest a workshop, a meeting—anything—for international students to speak and ask questions.” After the president’s announcement, the Dream Team sponsored a free legal consultation event for DACA students. The group is planning to host more workshops in the future.
Be it student-run civil rights workshops or campus bulletin boards for safe houses, students across the country will be leading the charge to demand sanctuary for undocumented peers and university employees if Trump keeps his promise after inauguration. And his administration will have to answer. The Black Lives Matter movement and students who participated in Egypt’s Arab Spring proved the efficacy of galvanizing support through social media to spark national conversations. Occupy Wall Street unified the 99 percent and evoked class consciousness. As long as the plight of the marginalized remains irresolute, it is not unreasonable to expect students will mobilize en masse and potentially bring their institutions to a grinding halt to effect change.
Fagan Kuhnmuench is a Brooklyn-based writer and illustrator currently working on his first book and graphic novel. When he’s not doing that, he’s either crying in the shower or singing in his band, Dynamite Vest. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and check out his website.