Action, Not Labels, Needed on Immigration

Faust is right to reject “sanctuary campus” label

The election of Donald J. Trump has deeply disturbed many in the Harvard community, and now some students and affiliates are concerned about how his forthcoming administration will affect undocumented students. The president-elect’s vow to eliminate so-called “sanctuary cities” such as Cambridge that do not cooperate with the enforcement of federal immigration laws and begin aggressive deportation has been particularly disconcerting for many undocumented students on campus whose futures in this country are increasingly in jeopardy.

Students have called on University President Drew G. Faust and the Harvard administration to protect undocumented students on campus from detention or deportation, a move we wholeheartedly support. Recent emails from both Faust and Harvard University Police Department Chief Francis D. “Bud” Riley have affirmed Harvard's commitment to protecting these students, and HUPD's long-standing policy of not inquiring into the immigration status of Harvard affiliates.

But student activists have also pushed Faust to officially designate Harvard a “sanctuary campus." Despite this call, Faust stated last week that she will not do in order to avoid potentially harmful, unintended consequences. We commend Faust’s prudent decision. The “sanctuary campus” label has an unclear meaning, and it unnecessarily puts the University—and by extension its affiliates—at risk.

Declaring Harvard a “sanctuary campus” would be nothing more than a symbolic gesture. Because the term carries no legal weight, it offers undocumented students no tangible benefits. In fact, because it is so nebulously defined, it could end up being used as a pejorative—much like the term “sanctuary city,” the catch-all that inspired “sanctuary campus.” Over the past several years, “sanctuary city” has become a favorite term for conservative politicians to stoke fears about immigration. It seems unwise and myopic for the University to create a new one in the form of “sanctuary campus.”

Even worse, adopting a potentially meaningless and politically-charged label will draw undesirable attention to the University at a time when lawmakers are preparing to step up immigration enforcement. President-elect Trump has vowed to defund “sanctuary cities,” and some members of Congress have already called for the defunding of “sanctuary campuses.”


Harvard received nearly $600 million in federal funding last year—not to mention the massive implicit subsidy that comes from the tax deductibility of donations to the University. While we do not know how feasible it would be for Congress to punish Harvard for declaring itself a “sanctuary campus,” it seems foolish to tempt them with a label that offers the University and students such little utility.

Of course, we adamantly support the administration’s efforts to protect undocumented students on campus. Faust is stepping up her lobbying for undocumented students in Washington, D.C., working with alumni to provide undocumented students with legal counsel, and appointing her chief of staff to coordinate advising efforts for undocumented students.

This is not to say that there is not more the University can do for undocumented students. It should work towards creating a central office to provide undocumented students with administrative, legal, and other services. Deportation is a human rights issue, and it is Harvard’s duty to protect its undocumented students, including those who have benefitted from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and might lose their status under a Trump presidency, and those who never had protected status at all.

Nevertheless, University leaders do not exercise total control over this matter. It is ultimately up to our leaders in Washington, D.C. to do their jobs and enact comprehensive immigration reform so millions of Americans do not have to live in fear. But until that happens, we urge the Harvard administration to step in and continue to do whatever they can to ease that fear in our community.


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