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Editorial: Make colleges a sanctuary from deportation threat

Pulliam Hall on the campus of Southern Illinois University Carbondale. | Wikimedia Commons photo.

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A nationwide movement to declare university campuses “sanctuary” spaces for students who are undocumented immigrants has arrived on the doorstep of Southern Illinois University.

SIU students have asked the university’s administration to protect those among them who are undocumented if and when federal immigration officials attempt to identify them — or to question, arrest or detain them — after Donald Trump becomes president Jan. 20.

Universities have an obligation to stand up for their students — all of them. Almost all of these young people on college campuses who fear deportation were brought to this country as babies or small children. They are Americans in every way except for that official citizenship paper. They are the so-called Dreamers. This is their home, the only one they have ever known.

To our thinking, all Illinois universities and colleges, public and private, should declare themselves places of sanctuary, just as cities such as Chicago and New York and counties such as Cook have done. They would send a signal to Trump, who campaigned on an indiscriminate promise to get tough on undocumented immigrants, that Americans are better than that — at least when it comes to Dreamers.


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More than 740,000 Dreamers have temporary protection from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, implemented by executive action by President Barack Obama in 2012. But their futures are up in the air.

On one hand, Trump has promised to rescind all of Obama’s executive actions, memorandums and orders. He has said they are unconstitutional. During the campaign, he promised to deport all undocumented immigrants from the U.S. — about 11 million.

On the other hand, Trump has softened some of his rhetoric and no longer seems hell-bent on expelling all of them. In an interview with Time, Trump said of those with DACA, “We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud.”

Nevertheless, some of Trump’s advisers are hard-liners on immigration. Between that and his unpredictable nature, immigrants understandably remain worried.

And it’s not just undocumented immigrants who are afraid. International students from the Middle East worry Trump’s administration will make it more difficult for them to continue studying in the U.S. They, too, want to know universities’ administrations will advocate for them.

Schools should spell out policies and protections, stating them clearly to students, campus police, faculty and staff. It’s not asking too much.

Whether or not administrators label a university a “sanctuary” campus is not the central issue here. The word is largely symbolic. The American Council on Education points out that it has no clear meaning. Policy is what counts.

“Sanctuary” has become an incendiary term that riles some conservatives. Sanctuary cities and counties across America have incurred the wrath of Republicans in Congress. Part of Trump’s 100-day action plan is to eliminate all federal funding to sanctuary cities. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has vowed that Chicago will continue to be a sanctuary city despite Trump’s promise. Other cities also are refusing to back down.

In a letter to student groups pushing for Southern Illinois University Carbondale to designate itself a sanctuary campus, Interim Chancellor Brad Colwell cited potential loss of federal student aid as a concern, according to the Southern Illinoisan.

Earlier this month in a letter to faculty, staff and students, University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen and other university officials said, “We cannot declare our campuses as sanctuaries, as the concept is not well specified and may actually jeopardize our institution.” They vowed to work within the law to help.

These universities need to grow stronger backbones and stand firm that they will protect their students — at any cost. Trump has no mandate to go after undocumented immigrants. Polls consistently show that the majority of Americans support their legalization, with a path to citizenship.

University presidents from this state joined hundreds of others in expressing support for DACA. That was a good starting point. Some universities, such as the University of Connecticut, have let students know that campus police will not work with federal agencies to arrest or remove students for deportation. Connecticut’s policy is stated clearly on a university website.

Illinois universities must adopt similar transparent policies and stick to them. The best way to counter inhumanity is to stand together.

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