Moral Messaging: The Case for Sanctuary Campus Status

On December 6, President Faust announced that Harvard would not designate itself a sanctuary campus. The label’s lack of “legal significance,” she argued, renders it toothless. Policies associated with sanctuary campus status vary by university. Self-proclaimed sanctuary institutions characteristically institute policies that support undocumented students. For instance, many refuse to willingly assist federal officials in deportation efforts or reveal students’ immigration status.

It makes sense for Harvard to prioritize concrete actions that protect undocumented students over symbolic gestures. However, the word “sanctuary” carries a moral conviction that matters independently of policy concerns. Harvard should reconsider a sanctuary declaration to affirm its commitment to undocumented and mixed-status students, unequivocally celebrating their membership in the university community.

Call A Sanctuary A Sanctuary

With administrative initiatives underway but incomplete, the value of the label “sanctuary” lies more with the ethical stance it represents than any concrete policy changes. Officially, the word may offer students little tangible utility. Yet Harvard could send a message of staunch solidarity by declaring sanctuary campus status—a message intrinsic to the university’s moral support of its student body.

First, the symbolic value of “sanctuary campus” could provide undocumented students with mental security. For Daishi Tanaka, co-director of Harvard College Act on a Dream, “the greater meaning behind the word…[is] most meaningful to [him] personally.” As the protracted development of university initiatives leaves some questioning administrative priorities, the declaration would re-affirm Harvard’s commitment to student safety. Transcending inconsistent practical definitions, “sanctuary” sends an unambiguous message: “that the administration supports you, that they know that you’re here, and they don’t want to keep it a secret, that they’re not afraid, and that you shouldn’t be either,” as stated by Miguel Garcia ’17, student organizer and advocate for Harvard’s undocumented community.

Furthermore, the “sanctuary campus” dispute also presents Harvard a chance to publically oppose Trumpian ethnocentrism. The university’s political currency and cultural eminence mean that “having Harvard be a sanctuary campus along with the other schools…will be a huge step for that movement,” Tanaka points out. Indeed, Harvard’s declaration could spur on national conversation about the undocumented experience, a perspective absent from mainstream American narratives. While administration may have considered the label’s immediate use inadvisable, the attitude it communicates—one of diversity, inclusivity, and equal opportunity fundamental to Harvard’s pedagogical mission—remains equally important to convey as the year progresses.

Protecting Undocumented Students

The need for a sanctuary campus declaration also arises due to Harvard’s mixed success responding to the demands of undocumented student organizers. Given the unspecified practical definition of the term “sanctuary,” Garcia explains, “each school has to figure out what it means for them.” Cornell, for example, guarantees continued financial aid and need-blind admission for DACA students if Trump discontinues the program, while Columbia bars federal immigration officials from campus entry without a warrant and from student information without a subpoena. All sanctuary institutions, however, use the label to communicate unequivocal solidarity with undocumented students, reaffirming those students’ contribution to the university community and identity.

Regarding the policy implications of “sanctuary campus” for Harvard, Garcia pointed to “Protect Undocumented Students at Harvard,” a petition he helped draft and present to administrators. The document proposes institutional supports for the university’s undocumented community—many of which remain unrealized.

Of the petition’s proposals, Harvard administration responded most noticeably to the call for centralized resources and advising. “Protect Undocumented Students at Harvard” requested an Office for Undocumented Student Support, and although Harvard demonstrates little progress toward a physical office, administrators have increased efforts to consolidate resources for undocumented students. Days after the petition’s delivery, Dean Katie O’Daire responded. She cited the centralization of undocumented student initiatives under Loc Truong, Harvard’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion Programs, as well as the continued search for a new Assistant Dean. Since then, Truong established a student working group for future programs, and President Faust appointed Lars Madsen, her chief of staff, as coordinator for resources regarding immigration concerns.

To most of the petition’s demands, however—many of which seek to institutionalize policies which undocumented students consider important for their mental health and intellectual development—Harvard has not reacted. For instance, the petition also requested more tenured faculty of color, an additional culturally-competent mental health professional, and a new Dean and Assistant Dean of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Yet movement towards additional hiring appears negligible. The EDI website exhibits no news of headway toward the hiring of a Dean or Assistant Dean, and administrators remain silent on new efforts to diversify the cultural experience of tenured faculty members and mental health providers.

Harvard’s bureaucratic response in the face of an imminent Trump presidency has kindled frustration among undocumented students. Garcia, a member of Truong’s group, worries that progress “will take months upon months” and “is not a feasible response to this situation,” while those advocating for a centralized office consider Faust’s nomination of a “point person” inadequate. “I don’t think that undocumented students or students from mixed-status families feel like [their interests] are a priority,” Garcia observed. A participant in meetings with Dean Khurana and President Faust, he noted that “the tone throughout the whole process was, well, we want to provide these protections but let’s not make a big deal out of this…let’s keep this on the low because we don’t want everybody to know.” Harvard’s avoidance of “sanctuary” has only exacerbated student suspicions that the administration seeks to appease alternative interests.

A Decentralized Approach

Individual Harvard leaders have, however, striven to uphold the moral tenets of “sanctuary” in the absence of an institutional designation. Three Harvard faculty members published a Crimson Letter to the Editor calling on the Harvard administration to stand behind undocumented student organizers in defense of diversity. Some have stepped beyond verbal advocacy, indicating their willingness to defy federal law. In his sermon on December 18, Memorial Church Minister Jonathan L. Walton professed his commitment to a “higher moral law” regarding the security of Harvard students. He affirmed the Church’s unconditional allegiance to all, documented or not, and declared the space a “sanctuary” for those facing adverse changes to federal immigration policy.

Harvard professor Walter Johnson, one contributor to the Crimson letter, considers the “ethical orientation” adopted by Memorial Church a step in the right direction. He persuasively argues that Harvard should mirror the reverend’s “unequivocal position of defiance” in vindication of university priorities. Even without a sanctuary campus declaration, bypassed for lack of legal clarity, individual university leaders have recognized the transcendent value of its symbolic meaning. Harvard should mind and reinforce their endeavors by verbalizing Walton’s attitude with “sanctuary campus” status.

Concerns about Sanctuary Campuses

Opponents of sanctuary campuses conceivably worry that Harvard will run into legal challenges if it adopts the term. Traditionally, “sanctuary” has denoted an institution’s willingness to defy the law and suffer the consequences. Likewise, Harvard may fear committing itself to the violation of unnamed future court orders. Yet today’s sanctuary campus discussion has ignored the illegality associated with the term. Students advocating for its adoption have not suggested Harvard promise to defy federal law, nor have other self-proclaimed sanctuary campuses stated an intention to do so. If Harvard still anticipates sanctuary campus status binding the university to unlawful actions, the administration could develop a Harvard-specific definition of “sanctuary” that clarifies the university’s intention in adopting it.

President Faust has voiced concerns that the label “would endanger, rather than protect” Harvard students by predisposing them to “special attention.” Yet it is no mystery that Harvard matriculates undocumented students, and sanctuary campus status publicizes no new information about them. “DACA students are required to register through a federal program, so that information is already had by federal agencies,” Garcia points out, and for those not registered under DACA, “Harvard has already multiple times told its undocumented population that it does not keep a record of undocumented students…in case [people of power] ask for it,” Tanaka says.

Faust’s concern about drawing unwanted attention implies that sanctuary campus status will render undocumented students the rhetorical punching bag of the movement’s opponents. If such apprehensions exist among undocumented students, they must be taken seriously. Yet currently, the argument appears more an unsubstantiated hedge than palpable problem. The uncertainty of what “sanctuary campus” will mean under Trump’s presidency breeds hesitancy while obfuscating progress, making sanctuary campus status a nonobvious decision. Yet forgoing a sanctuary declaration amounts to its own decision: one that ignores the voices of many students who call Harvard home.

Perhaps there exists a way for Harvard to communicate the moral convictions of “sanctuary” without using the word itself. But why take the long road? Symbolic support remains an essential part of Harvard’s responsibility toward its undocumented community. So far, however Harvard has failed to convince its undocumented community of, in the words of President Faust, the university’s “clear and unequivocal support.” Individual Harvard leaders have already embraced the moral conviction—or “ethical orientation,” per Reverend Walton—of a sanctuary campus. Certainly, student organizers and administrators continue concerted efforts to provide the undocumented community more emotional, legal, and economic resources. Yet as long-term initiatives undergo slow progress, Harvard’s hesitancy to make a public commitment disrespects the efforts of students and faculty to keep our school inclusive, open-minded, and safe for all. “Sanctuary” points the way toward bridging the gap.


Image Source: Flickr/Dream Activist

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