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As Harvard Responds to Immigration Policy Changes, Faculty Want a Bigger Role

Harvard professors and affiliates protest in support of DACA/TPS in front of the JFK Building in Boston in March.
Harvard professors and affiliates protest in support of DACA/TPS in front of the JFK Building in Boston in March. By Timothy R. O'Meara
By Ruth A. Hailu and Olivia C. Scott, Crimson Staff Writers

As Harvard continues to grapple with shifts in federal immigration policies that affect its affiliates, some faculty who focus on immigration patterns and policy want a larger platform to voice their expertise and support staff and students directly affected by the changes

Under President Donald Trump, the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remains in doubt, new restrictions have made it harder for foreign students from certain countries to obtain visas, and Harvard workers who hold Temporary Protected Status find their futures in limbo.

One way in which faculty have begun to collaborate with students, staff, and administrators on these issues is through the Harvard Community Organized for Immigration Action. According to their website, HCOIA, a new group established at the beginning of the school year, aims to respond to “anti-immigration rhetoric and policy” by “bringing the University’s resources to bear on the problem both internally and in the wider community.”

Several faculty members said they believe this new combined effort between faculty, staff, and students serves as the most productive way to address immigration concerns at Harvard.

“I’m really inspired by the design and the structure of HCOIA and how it is a coalition of students and staff members and faculty,” said Kristina Shull, a post-doctoral fellow in the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. “The ethos of it is that for people in the coalition who are the most directly affected by these issues to have the loudest voice, so I think that that’s definitely going in the right direction.”

Many faculty members who work on immigration issues emphasized that they have valuable perspectives the University should take into account when planning Harvard's official efforts to advocate for less restrictive immigration policies.

“I think that faculty whose research expertise is relevant to the issues in question are a tremendous resource available to the University administration for consultation, participation, coordination as befits the particular issue being lobbied around,” said Kirsten Weld, a social sciences professor and member of HCOIA.

Weld also said that faculty involvement is particularly important because the uncertainty and stress caused by immigration issues often impacts their interactions with students.

“I think faculty do really care about this issue because it affects their teaching, it affects my classroom,” Weld said. “It affects their time management, it affects their sleep, it affects their general levels of stress and anxiety in ways that are corrosive to the work that we're all trying to do at the University.”

Education Professor Roberto G. Gonzales said Harvard Legal Counsel Robert W. Iuliano sought out his expertise while working on a series of amicus briefs in defense of DACA last year.

“I shared findings of my research with them and shared also a declaration I wrote,” Gonzales said. “I think on campus, that’s where I’ve been able to kind of leverage my expertise to inform the larger efforts on behalf of the University.”

History and Literature Lecturer Emily Pope-Obeda said there is room for improvement in coordination between faculty and administrators, though.

“It seems like the initiatives and efforts coming out of the administration were pretty separate and were not necessarily informed by a lot of the faculty,” Emily Pope-Obeda, a lecturer in History and Literature, said.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow has begun to consult with faculty since he took office in July. Last month, President Lawrence S. Bacow held a meeting with members of HCOIA — and University spokesperson, Melodie L. Jackson said he has sought out faculty voices when considering immigration issues in his first months at Harvard's helm.

“President Bacow has discussed immigration issues with faculty, students and staff from around the University, including those who are part of Harvard Community Organizing for Immigration Action,” she wrote in an email Wednesday. "Harvard remains deeply committed to supporting those in our community who have been impacted by changes in the federal government’s TPS, DACA and other immigration policies, and we will continue to make every effort to have our voice heard and to advocate for permanent legislative solutions to these challenging issues."

Gonzales said it seems that so far, Bacow has focused primarily on efforts beyond Harvard's gates.

“I think we’re very early in the Bacow presidency, and it seems to me that he’s focused his early attention on more outfacing activities, so being a public presence, doing the lobbying, I think actively trying, getting Harvard’s name out there,” he said.

Bacow traveled to Washington, D.C. over the summer to meet with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Immigration was one item on the agenda.

"[I] talked to people about immigration issues, about DACA, about the importance of continuing to extend the protection of Temporary Protected Status for students, for staff, for others, why it was important that places like this continue to be open to talented men and women from around the world," Bacow said in September.

Though some faculty say there have not been many coordinated efforts between faculty and administrators, the past year has seen a number of faculty initiatives, including a planned act of civil disobedience in which 31 faculty members were arrested.

“I was really encouraged, as a second week faculty member at an institution, to see how ready faculty were to take an action in support of their students and the broader Harvard community,” Pope-Obeda said.

Ahmed Ragab, an associate professor of Science and Religion at the Harvard Divinity School, took part in the 2017 protest just an hour after he was naturalized as a citizen. Ragab said that unlike many immigrant advocate groups who demonstrate throughout the country, the Harvard faculty members who were arrested did not face charges.

“Ultimately, the fact that this did not happen to us is again another testament to the privilege that we have,” Ragab said. “We need to exercise our privilege and use our privilege to protect or to sort of speak for those who do not have the same kind of privilege.”

Faculty have also invested in educating Harvard affiliates by elevating the voices of other immigration experts. Last semester, faculty hosted a series of events with the goal of creating a space for dialogue regarding not only DACA, but issues including Temporary Protected Status and support for undocumented students. Weld mentioned that while they did receive funding from a variety of institutions throughout the school, “the impetus for it was entirely faculty-driven.”

With the new coordinated efforts of HCOIA, faculty are beginning to think about developing plans around immigration issues they feel Harvard has not yet fully addressed.

“Another question is what would happen if ICE came to campus? Do educators and faculty and staff on campus have direction or a plan for that? And that’s something I’d like to see being developed over this year,” said Shull, referred to Immigrations and Custom Enforcement, the federal agency that deports undocumented immigrants.

Weld echoed similar concerns over Harvard’s preparedness to address the repeal of TPS, specifically for Salvadoran staff. TPS provides legal protections for immigrants from countries plagued by war or natural disaster. A federal judge temporarily blocked the Trump administration from deporting TPS holders earlier this month, but whether they will be allowed to remain in the United States legally in the long-term remains uncertain.

“It's my understanding that there are something on the order of between 200 and 250 Salvadoran TPS holders among the custodial and culinary staff of the university, and if the legal appeals don't manage to reverse that, then in I believe September of 2019, those people are going to lose their ability to work legally and their status overnight,” she said. “That seems to me like something the University should have a contingency plan for.”

When it comes to organizing plans to address these immigration concerns, Pope-Obeda stressed that while faculty provide a crucial perspective, those who are most closely impacted by the issues should assume leading roles.

“I think as faculty members, especially those of us who have the privilege to be secure in our own citizenship status, it's important for us not to rest on that and to take the lead from the impacted groups,” she said.

—Staff writer Ruth A. Hailu can be reached at Follow her on twitter @ruth_hailu_

—Staff writer Olivia C. Scott can be reached at

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