It took four attempts for eight-year-old Miguel Gutierrez, his mother and two-year-old brother to make it to Arizona from Sonora, Mexico.
“Each time we walked through the desert. The first time was probably the hardest; it was about eight to 10 hours. We stayed out through the night and camped out there,” said Gutierrez, now 21. The unsuccessful journeys often ended at deportation centres, he said.
Gutierrez is a computer science major at Swarthmore College. It is one of about a dozen US colleges that have declared themselves “sanctuary” campuses.
A “sanctuary”, though commonly known as a place of refuge, has no legal definition in the US.
“Sanctuary cities” became a term used to describe jurisdictions that employ varying policies of lawful non-cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. Some declared themselves sanctuaries, but not all did.
After the 2016 elections, a small number of colleges, including Swarthmore, also declared themselves sanctuaries in opposition to US President Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. Like sanctuary cities, these schools employ differing policies of noncompliance with ICE, experts say.
“Swarthmore really came forward. The whole community really came forward,” said Gutierrez, who dreams of a job in Silicon Valley. He is one of thousands of undocumented students granted temporary reprieve from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme. “I feel like if Trump repeals DACA tomorrow, I’ll be safe for the rest of my time at school.”
Students, faculty, alumni and activists have petitioned around 250 institutions to declare themselves sanctuaries. The “sanctuary” label, however, which many say has been politicised by both liberals and conservatives in the US, has some school administrations reluctant to openly adopt it.
Trump’s executive order denying federal funding to sanctuary jurisdictions also did not clearly define a “sanctuary”, which has led to further confusion and fear, says immigration expert Phil Torrey, of Harvard Law School.
“There’s a wide range of different sorts of immigrant-friendly policies, and none of those are laid out in the executive order,” said Torrey. “[Localities] are just not really sure who’s under attack and who is not.”
About 115 schools have pledged to support undocumented students, but avoid using the sanctuary label. Petitions have been submitted to around 120 other institutions, but have gone unanswered, according to crImmigration.com, a website run by Cesar Cuauhtemoc Garcia Hernandez, adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law.
Advocates of the sanctuary movement say colleges should embrace the label.
“I think schools should be making a strong statement to set an example for others,” Gutierrez said.
School administrations’ hesitancy to embrace the sanctuary movement is compounded by a legislative backlash in several states. Conservative state politicians have proposed legislation to pressure schools to both cooperate with ICE officials and not declare themselves sanctuaries.
About 740,000 people have been granted DACA since the programme was created in 2012 by the Obama administration, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The US Department of Education estimates that about 65,000 (p3) undocumented students graduate from high schools in the US every year.
Swarthmore College is in Pennsylvania, where Republican Jerry Knowles introduced legislation in January to withhold state funds from colleges that adopt sanctuary policies, making specific mention of those universities requiring arrest warrants from ICE officials before allowing them on campus, as Swarthmore does. The bill has been co-sponsored by 30 other legislators.
“It is my belief that the schools declaring themselves sanctuary campuses are blatantly disregarding federal law and thumbing their noses at the taxpayers of Pennsylvania,” stated Knowles on his website. He did not respond to a request for an interview.
In Indiana, a bill proposed by two state senators, Republicans Mike Delph and R Michael Young, would expand the already strict ban on cities enacting policies of noncooperation with immigration authorities in the state.
The proposed law has a wide-ranging definition of sanctuary policies, and identifies any college or university that restricts personnel from “sending, receiving, maintaining, or exchanging information regarding the citizenship or immigration status of any individual with a federal, state, or local government entity” as subject to the ban.
Undocumented students in Indiana have an uncertain future, said Pamela, a 19-year-old DACA student at Indiana University Bloomington. She asked that her full name not be used.
“Intuitively I feel Trump is inching towards DACA. I don’t know if he’s already there, or if he just hasn’t publicly said anything against it, but it’s going to be a trying few years,” said Pamela, who was two years old when she was brought to the US from Mexico.
The biochemistry major is anxious about DACA’s future, especially because she has to apply again before she graduates as the status is granted in two-year installments.
Trump vowed to end DACA during his election campaign, but has since stayed away from specifics, calling it a “very, very difficult subject” for him.
Indiana University Bloomington has promised not to share student information with federal authorities without a subpoena – a policy protected by federal law – according to the school. It has not declared itself a sanctuary campus.
“Before Donald Trump got elected, I had never really known what it was like to be truly terrified of deportation,” said Pamela, who works with the UndocuHoosiers Alliance, which petitioned the university to adopt sanctuary policies.
On Sunday, Reuters reported that two memos being reviewed by the Trump administration would greatly expand the undocumented individuals prioritised for deportation to include people who have been charged but not convicted of crimes.
The memos also suggest that wide discretion will be given to ICE agents to decide whom to deport, and considers anyone living in the US without papers to be subject to deportation, the news agency reported.
Willy Palomo, a graduate student at Indiana University Bloomington who co-founded the UndocuHoosiers Alliance, which also raises funds for scholarships for undocumented students, wants the school to fully declare itself a “sanctuary”.
“One of the big things about sanctuary campuses is that it is a visible support,” Palomo said. “Practically, there’s only so much a school can do to support undocumented students. But this shows the school will stand with its students.”
In the American “deep south”, with its traditionally strict immigration laws, activists say universities have the opportunity to make a statement that will resonate across the country.
In Alabama, a bill prohibiting colleges and universities from declaring themselves sanctuaries passed in the State House – a pivotal step in becoming state law.
In December, the governor of Texas threatened to cut funding to any state college that declared itself a sanctuary campus.
In Georgia, where undocumented students are banned from attending some top public institutions, a bill stripping funds from sanctuary campuses proposed by Republican Earl Erhart recently passed the House’s Higher Education Committee. Al Jazeera English reached out to all the above politicians for comment, but none responded.
Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia – a prestigious institution with a history of leading civil rights movements – highlights the complex nature of “visible support”, as Palomo is advocating for in Indiana.
The school doesn’t call itself a sanctuary, which it noted in a statement has “no legal definition”.
“Emory is exploring sustainable solutions to support undocumented students,” said the statement provided to Al Jazeera English. It went on to say the school would not turn over student information unless presented with a subpoena.
The school’s president said the decision not to declare itself a sanctuary was influenced by a discussion she had with undocumented students who were afraid it would bring increased scrutiny, according to the student newspaper, the Emory Wheel. It also reported that students from Emory’s Undocumented Students Association, which represents some DACA students on campus, opposed the “sanctuary” designation.
But Laura Emiko Soltis, an Emory alumna who runs Freedom University, a non-profit organisation that offers education for undocumented students, compared the situation to 1962, when Emory stood up to state politicians threatening to revoke its tax-exempt status if it admitted black students.
Soltis is one of 1,500 students, faculty, and alumni who have signed a petition urging the school to declare itself a sanctuary.
“The movement is different, but the tactics of the state legislators are the same,” Soltis said. “Emory is trying to grant equal access to marginalised groups, and the state responds with threats.”
She added: “Emory has taken a stand against injustice in the past.”
Back in Pennsylvania, Gutierrez said he feels the challenges he has faced, like thousands of other undocumented students, have made him stronger. Despite the anxiety about his future, he feels a sense of hope.
“[The election] has brought some of these problems to light, and people are starting to fight against it more now,” Gutierrez said. “I just hope it continues. I just hope people continue the process of being active, because we have to continue this for four more years.”
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