Since the election of Donald Trump, like hundreds of universities across the country, The New School has been mobilized. Following the Executive Orders on Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements and Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States in January of 2017, faculty, students and staff have not only denounced anti-immigrant policies and but also worked to ensure that our campus can provide the protection and support that those targeted by these orders need.
Days after the November election, a group of faculty and The New School Dream Team — a student organization composed of undocumented New School students and their allies — wrote an open letter to the university administration. Signed by over 1200 members of the university community, it asked that The New School issue a statement of non-cooperation with immigration authorities; that the institution provide resources (housing, legal support and financial aid) for those that could potentially be affected; and that training for faculty, staff and security personnel be implemented. Finally, we asked that the university make a commitment to stand in solidarity with immigrant communities and resist anti-immigrant discourse and policies by declaring The New School to be a sanctuary campus.
On November 22, 2016 the administration and the Board of Trustees issued a statement similar to those adopted by other universities. It expressed their support for students, regardless of legal status, and affirmed that The New School would not share information or allow immigration authorities on campus unless there is a court order or warrant.
However, the university refused to declare The New School to be a sanctuary campus, arguing that the term is not clear enough and that such a declaration may promise a form of protection that the university cannot provide. The administration also argued that it could do more harm than good to put the university in the spotlight through such a declaration. The Trump administration has threatened to cut federal funding to any local or state government that adopts what is considered a stance of defiance, and in January Republican Members of Congress introduced a bill (HR 483) to cut funding to universities that are considered to be sanctuary campuses. However, the ruling this week by a federal judge in San Francisco is a clear sign of the limits of such threats as it establishes that the president does not have the authority to attach new conditions on the allocation of federal funds, and therefore cannot withhold the grants at stake from local governments.
While it is true that the term “sanctuary” is interpreted widely and often misunderstood by advocates and those who oppose it, the ambiguity of the term should be seen as an opportunity rather than a limitation. In our communications with The New School administration and the wider university community, we have argued that given this vagueness, we are in a position to define precisely what we mean by sanctuary and explain precisely what kind of support we can offer considering existing resources as well as our legal responsibilities.
Following the issuance of the Executive Orders, an expanded coalition of faculty, undocumented and international students and staff joined efforts to form a Sanctuary Working Group and wrote a second letter to the administration, delivered on February 13, 2017. Our letter acknowledged the position taken by the university but pointed to specific points in which the administration should take action to create a meaningful sanctuary – not just for migrants and refugees but for a number of groups that are being attacked (Muslims, Latinx, Black, women, and LGBTQ communities). As New School anthropology professor Miriam Ticktin has argued, an intersectional approach in the sanctuary movement would address necessary systemic, structural political change. “We are not looking for a space outside a political order,” Ticktin argues, “but for a new political order: forms of local sovereignty are being experimented with, built from the ground up, with the goal of protecting the health, safety and welfare of all residents within their communities, regardless of immigration status.”
This second letter was signed by a large portion of our university community, including faculty councils across schools, student and staff organizations and unions. In a follow up meeting between the President, the Provost, senior staff and members of the Sanctuary Working Group we asked the President to commit to create a Taskforce on Sanctuary Campus to follow up on each of the 16 points outlined in the letter and establish a clear process to discuss the declaration of sanctuary campus. We noted the university community’s widespread support for such a statement, the history and the values that The New School stands for, and the concerns the administration itself has expressed about these policies. Two weeks after the meeting, the President’s office sent us an email explaining that while they recognized our concerns, these requests could not be approved. Instead, the Sanctuary Working Group was offered follow up meetings with different offices (such as Student Success) to report on our concerns and the information we had about affected students. No formal statement of support was offered.
In the meantime, the Sanctuary Working Group and The New School Dream Team continue to receive reports from undocumented and international students with concerns about financial aid and legal support that remain unaddressed. Students from Muslim-majority countries are unsure about whether they can return to the United States to complete their studies if they leave the country. Students with precarious legal status are afraid to leave New York over the summer break due to immigration enforcement actions; the university has not responded whether housing options can be made available in such cases. There are also clear institutional gaps regarding the protection of information on our online advising platforms.
In response to continuing pressure from students and faculty, William Milberg, the Dean of NSSR, has recognized such needs and proposed to form a divisional taskforce to address them. While we view this as an important first step, we maintain that forming a University-wide Taskforce is necessary to establish an institutional structure that can respond effectively and consistently to such concerns as opposed to a case-by-case approach. Such structures require a horizontal approach that includes the voices of those affected and is supported with resources and institutional commitments, following examples such as those set by the University of California system where there is a dedicated office in every campus focused on the needs of undocumented students, and legal aid for students and their families.
We don’t have to reinvent these structures and practices, because they are not unprecedented. On April 19, Susan B. Coutin, author of The Culture of Protest: Religious Activism and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement (Westview Press, 1993) gave a talk at The New School, co-sponsored by the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility and the Anthropology Department, in which she drew on the history of the sanctuary movement of the 1980s to reflect on its current revival and expansion beyond religious congregations. She reminded us that sanctuary was interpreted widely back then, just as it is now; and that the practices that it involved went beyond providing housing in churches or aiding border crossings. Sanctuary activists wrote letters to Congress, protested against the wars that were pushing people to leave Central America, donated food and clothing, raised money for bail bonds, and more. For some, it was a matter of living out their faith or principles; for others it was part of a larger political stance against the policies of the Reagan administration. Overall, Coutin argues that one of the most significant impacts of the movement was in the communities and networks that were formed through activism: “By its very existence, the sanctuary movement incrementally changed society,” she notes. Thus, beyond its success in changing legislation to provide Temporary Protected Status to Central American refugees (which provided a framework for the DACA program in 2012), it was in its daily practices and activities that the sanctuary movement was able to change communities’ perceptions and responses to migrants in a positive way.
Following this idea, while we continue to insist that the university leadership make a commitment to sanctuary and carry forward this movement, we are already cultivating a culture of sanctuary at The New School. There are many ways in which each one of us — faculty, students, staff and administrators — can invoke the meanings and goals of sanctuary in our daily activities. This article in Higher Education outlines ten ways in which faculty members and administrators can help immigrant students. Jonathan Bach, Associate Professor of Global Studies at The New School, and I have also offered six paths to take action in an essay titled “Why the New Deportation Rules Should Concern Everyone.” Other tangible ways in which you can express your solidarity with the movement are to post this sanctuary logo in your office, on your locker, in your email signature, in your social media profiles and other virtual and physical spaces.
On May Day there will be a number of student-led events on campus (including an intervention in response to the proposed Mexican border wall and a Know Your Rights campaign) to display our solidarity with A Day Without Immigrants actions. There will be other events and activities in Washington Square Park, Foley Square, and other parts of the city that you can join that day. The New School Sanctuary Working Group will continue to organize events across campus and in coalition with other universities in the coming months.
The debate around the use of the word sanctuary or the idea of a sanctuary campus can be a transformative moment. It is not only an effective way to respond and resist in this political context, but also an opportunity to open a debate about the role of universities and other institutions in the protection of the rights of marginalized groups more generally. What does it mean for universities to be truly inclusive? What steps can university communities take to become more democratic, and are we willing to do so? The political moment we are living in requires us to re-examine existing frameworks and concepts, so that we can mobilize them when the principles and values we stand for are under attack.
Universities play a key role by clarifying the framework and terms of a moral debate, taking a stance, and making our campuses accessible, safe and truly open: in other words, making them a sanctuary.
Giving sanctuary to undocumented immigrants doesn’t threaten public safety — it increases it
Sanctuary: An Old Religious Idea Becomes a New Immigrant Movement (Again)
Sanctuary Campus: Frequently Asked Questions
A Radical Expansion of Sanctuary: Steps in Defiance of Trump’s Executive Order
Sanctuary Campus: Resistance and Protection Within and Beyond the University
 Miriam Ticktin, “Women’s Rights and Sanctuary: Sister Struggles,” presentation at Cardozo Law School, Feminism in the Age of Trump, March 2017
 Anita Casavantes Bradford, Laura E. Enriquez and Susan Bibler Coutin, “10 Ways to Support Students Facing Immigration Crises,” Inside Higher Ed, January 31, 2017.
Alexandra Délano Alonso is Assistant Professor of Global Studies and the author of Mexico and its Diaspora in the United States: Policies of Emigration since 1848 (Cambridge University Press, 2011).