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Pushing Harvard Towards Sanctuary Campus Status

By Miguel Garcia, Ilian Meza Peña, Allyson R. Perez, and Anastacia Valdespino, Contributing Writers

Earlier this week, the Harvard community received an email from President Drew Faust in which she communicated “clear and unequivocal support” for undocumented students on campus. Therein, she sought to “share information about related University resources and evolving plans.” The email, according to President Faust’s chief of staff Lars Madsen, was a direct outcome of a private meeting between President Faust and Harvard University students held on November 21 to discuss the University’s role in protecting undocumented students at Harvard in the aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s campaign victory.

As student organizers involved in drafting the student and faculty petition titled “Protect Undocumented Students at Harvard,” and as participants in meetings with Dean Rakesh Khurana and President Faust, we believe that the email does not adequately address the concerns expressed by members of the Harvard community. Specifically, President Faust and Dean Khurana have yet to issue a statement on Harvard’s status as a sanctuary campus or on the creation of a centralized office for undocumented students. While President Faust’s email signals towards the centralization of resources in some form, the University has yet to state how this would take shape, and we continue to advocate for a physical office where undocumented students and students from mixed-status families can go for support.

Declaring Harvard University as a sanctuary campus is more than a symbolic gesture, as it is a necessary step in reaffirming the University’s commitment to undocumented students and students from mixed-status families. Further, the administration full heartedly partook in the symbolic gesture of changing the title of “House Master” to “Faculty Dean” earlier this year, a change that was met with little other action to meet the needs of students of color on campus. President Faust herself has defended this decision, stating that “we need to be aware of language, actions that threaten, that undermine, that demean.” We agree with this sentiment and believe that the declaration of Harvard as a sanctuary campus is consistent with this goal, and as a result the University’s current apprehension with the use of the words “sanctuary campus” feels incongruous.

Declaring Harvard as a sanctuary campus would also stand as a denouncement of a heightened culture of xenophobia and bias that renders certain communities vulnerable, particularly undocumented students, students of color, LGBTQ students, and Muslim students. In addition to reaffirming the University's commitment against voluntary cooperation with federal immigration authorities including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol, Harvard's status as a sanctuary campus would also involve the University’s refusal to cooperate with any registration system that seeks to surveil and identify Muslim community members. We reject the notion that the desired label carries no substantive value and uphold our belief in the power of words to influence our community’s culture and collective identity.

While President Faust's "clear and unequivocal support" for undocumented students may inherently welcome a positive and comforting response at first glance, this support, if not mobilized into declaring Harvard a sanctuary campus and accompanied by the establishment of a centralized office, will remain but an empty gesture. Now, more than ever before, it is crucial to have the University provide concrete resources to its community members. We hereby call for a shift from private and last-minute meetings between students and the Harvard administration to open meetings where all stakeholders can voice their concerns.

Denying stakeholders decision-making power will only further dilute the administration's ability to be accountable to the nuanced worries felt by individuals in our community. For example, crucial topics relating to mental health and expanding Harvard's protection of undocumented students beyond DACA-mented students have been left unrecognized by the administration. President Faust’s currently ignores that not all undocumented students at Harvard are beneficiaries of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and that this population of students is particularly vulnerable to the imminent immigration policy changes already signaled by President-elect Trump. The Supreme Court’s January ruling on Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, which upheld the Texas court’s ruling, was a blow to the undocumented community who looked forward to millions of parents gaining a small, yet meaningful protection. With the ruling upheld as a result of a deadlock, the prospect of President-elect Donald Trump nominating at least one Supreme Court Justice during his presidency is a terrifying prospect.

Given the growing hostile environment throughout the nation and even within the campus, the call made by undocumented students to increase mental health resources and counseling, as well as cultural competency trainings for all faculty, administrators, staff, and peer counselors who interact with undocumented students on a regular basis, is more important than ever and would proactively generate the “tolerant and inclusive” environment President Faust has expressed a desire to create.

Harvard University students were among the first to create a petition calling for clear and concrete protections for undocumented students after Trump became President-elect. While 28 other universities, including Columbia and Wesleyan University, have already declared themselves sanctuary campuses, Harvard University’s administration remains unwilling to take the first step necessary towards creating a more welcoming and protective space for undocumented students. Moving forward, we call upon the University to proceed with a greater measure of transparency and to respond to our petition, endorsed by over 4,000 Harvard affiliates, including faculty, students and alumni, no later than December 6, as initially requested at the November 17 meeting between College administrators and student representatives.

We believe future actions by the University must involve more than comforting words and conversations that end with promises of more conversation. With regards to an office space, we write with an awareness that Harvard was the last Ivy to establish a BGLTQ office when it opened in 2011, and was years behind peer institutions in establishing a Women’s Center, which opened in 2006. This is not to mention the continued absence of a multicultural center or even an ethnic studies department that would go a long way toward creating physical and intellectual spaces in which students can develop and experience a better understanding of the increasingly heterogeneous world around them. Despite our disappointment with our administration’s unwillingness to recognize the importance of the points outlined in our petition, we recognize the unique opportunity we have at hand to become a leader in establishing an office for undocumented students. By leading instead of following, we can do things differently this time around. Many of our futures depend on it.

Miguel Garcia '17, a History and Literature concentrator, lives in Cabot House. Ilian Meza Peña '17, a History and Literature, lives in Adams House. Allyson R. Perez '17, a Social Studies concentrator, lives in Quincy House. Anastacia Valdespino '18, a History and Literature concentrator, lives in Quincy House. They are all organizers with PUSH (Protect Undocumented Students at Harvard).

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