In the wake of an increasingly intolerant political climate, many universities now identify as “sanctuary campuses”. Despite the title’s growing popularity, its actual definition remains unclear. Generally, a sanctuary campus signifies a higher education institution that adopts policies to protect undocumented students from deportation.
The concept of sanctuary campuses hails from sanctuary cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, which refuse to cooperate with Federal authorities to deport undocumented immigrants.
The actual policies of sanctuary campuses vary widely between colleges. Some sanctuary campus schools, such as Wesleyan University, strive to shield its students from deportation to the best of its ability, while others, like Portland State University, may merely function as a safe space where students will not face discrimination. This inconsistency in the label’s meaning drives criticism of the sanctuary movement.
Some skeptics argue that the term sanctuary campus” is actually harmful because it lacks specific regulations and legal basis, confusing undocumented students, thereby worsening their situation. Additionally, some may argue that sanctuary campus universities are violating the law, but in reality, these universities are merely doing all they can to protect their students. These flaws deter many universities, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Brown, from describing themselves as sanctuary campuses.
In response to pressure on the university to adopt the term, Drew Faust, president of Harvard, said in a meeting with the school’s faculty, “It risks drawing special attention to the students in ways that could put their status in greater jeopardy… Sanctuary Campus status has no legal significance or even clear definition. It offers no actual protection to our students. I worry that in fact it offers false and misleading assurance”. However, the benefit of ensuring campuses are safe and welcoming for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion, cannot be overestimated and sanctuary campuses serve this purpose.
Despite President Faust’s rejection of the sanctuary campus label, Harvard is preparing to aid students fearing President Trump’s immigration policies by hiring immigration experts to provide legal resources and appointing an administrator to assist undocumented students.
Other universities, like Columbia, do not define themselves as sanctuary campuses, but refuse to cooperate with authorities to expose undocumented students.
While it remains to be seen whether sanctuary campuses will actually be successful in protecting undocumented students, the benefits of students feeling safe at their school are countless. Feeling supported and valued by faculty and peers won’t magically grant a student citizenship. It might, however, provide vulnerable students with strength and motivation to overcome fear, feelings of isolation, and continue their education. Even the creation of safe spaces fosters a better learning environment for all students and ensures students will not be forced to contend with discrimination on a regular basis. A school cannot pride itself on teaching its students if even a fraction of them feel unsafe.
In order to legitimize the label and movement, a concrete definition should be established, unifying sanctuary campuses across the country and strengthening their reach. Such a definition would also address many criticisms of sanctuary campuses by clarifying their resources for students and providing a general set of guidelines. Promoting sanctuary on campuses, in whatever form, is a vital step toward acceptance, tolerance, and valuing all individuals at a time when it is needed most.
by Catherine Burke