Students And Faculty Rally To Designate USC As A 'Sanctuary' Campus

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On campus at USC (Photo by Michael Locke via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)

As debate over the future of so-called "sanctuary cities" intensifies across the country, students and faculty at the University of Southern California have jumped into the fray, initiating a campaign to have administrators officially declare USC to be a "sanctuary campus." In an online letter that began circulating Sunday and had almost 5,000 signatures as of Wednesday morning, students and faculty call on the USC President Dr. Max Nikias, USC Provost Dr. Michael Quick, and USC Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Ainsley Carry to officially designate the school as a sanctuary for undocumented students, staff, and their family members who face imminent deportation.

USC's designation as a sanctuary campus would be in following with the City of L.A.'s own role as a sanctuary city. Although there is no exact legal definition for the term, a sanctuary city is essentially a municipality that limits cooperation with federal immigration officials. L.A.'s own designation—which dates back to 1979—stems from a police mandate called Special Order 40, which essentially prohibits LAPD officers from asking about a person’s immigration status. Both Mayor Eric Garcetti and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck have reaffirmed L.A.'s commitment to Special Order 40 in recent days.

The USC letter urges that the school moved forward on an unofficial sanctuary designation as "a concrete action that USC can take to support and protect the people within our community who are living in extreme fear and uncertainty." More specifically, they ask that USC guarantee privacy by refusing to release information regarding the immigration status of our students, staff and community members, and that the school refuse to comply with immigration authorities regarding deportations or raids. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials could still legally enter the campus with a warrant, but, as Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic co-founder Marisa Montes explained to LAist, something like this would "basically be saying ICE can’t just come in and raid the campus."

Jody Agius Vallejo, the associate director at USC's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, is one of the six faculty members who have taken the lead on the campaign. She told LAist that the effects—which she said are supported by many students, faculty, and alumni who signed the letter as well as student groups on campus—are reflective of a larger movement at research universities across the country, where communities are "pursuing similar strategies to protect undocumented students, staff, workers, their families, and those in our community who are members of mixed-status families."

But what does that actually look like? And how much power does a university have to protect its students or community from the laws of the federal government by becoming a "sanctuary campus"?

According to USC Gould School of Law Immigration Clinic Director Niels W. Frenzen (speaking as an immigration law expert and not a representative of the University), the power of such a designation would likely be largely symbolic. "That type of political statement carries weight and puts pressure on your political adversaries," Frenzen said. "Symbolism is important. Words matter."

It's also significant to remember in this context that USC is not just a top-tier university, it's also the largest private employer in the city, adding to the potential weight of any symbolic decisions. The possible concrete ramifications of a USC sanctuary designation can be understood in two ways: as they apply to students, and as they apply to USC's role as an employer.

Since 1987, the U.S. has had federal employer sanctions in place, meaning that every employer in the country is required to check the immigration or citizenship status of employees and to retain that information in their personnel files. Every employer is required to maintain those records. "USC has thousands and thousands of employees," as Frenzen explained. "And the Department of Homeland Security can, at any time, without warrants, come onto campus and inspect those employment records, as it can to McDonalds, or Boeing," he said.

"Are there undocumented workers working at USC? Perhaps. But USC could not lawfully hire someone to work without that person producing either proof of U.S. citizenship status or—if they are not a citizen—producing proof of employment authorization issued by the Department of Homeland Security," Frenzen said. [Any undocumented workers would have had to provide false documentation.]

But what about for students? Legally, universities are also required to maintain databases on foreign students attending their schools on M-1 (temporary student visa) or J-1 (basic exchange visa) visas. "Post 9-11, schools are required to maintain databases that are shared with the Department of Homeland Security," Frenzen said, explaining that those databases contain biographical information, residence information, and even course enrollment information (including units and the specific courses) for students.

"It's not a question of would USC or UCLA share information—they are sharing that information about a certain portion of their students on a 24/7 basis with the Department of Homeland Security, and that's not going to change," he said. "The only way it would change legally is if USC stopped enrolling foreign students."

Students not attending on M-1 or J-1 visas, however, fall into a different category: DACA-status holders, undocumented students and permanent residents (i.e. green card holders) are not included in that database, and their information is not shared. "The calls by people for universities to be sanctuary universities, I don't think they are talking about 'Stop sharing information that you are required by law to share with the Canadian students or the Chinese students that are enrolled here,'" Frenzen said. "It's a call to protect the DACA-status holders or undocumented students that might be on campus."

Another major component of a potential sanctuary designation for the campus would be protecting students (and employees) from possible U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids. As written in the letter, advocates of the designation "have reason to believe that, without the permission of the university, Los Angeles police officers cannot enter its campus. Similarly, ICE officers are subject to restrictions based on a 2011 memo regarding places of worship, schools, and hospitals." Frenzen confirmed that ICE has a standing policy of not engaging in "general enforcement activities on university campuses," but added that "it is just a stated policy that could be changed at any time," and that there are exceptions to it.

Clearly, a great deal still remains unknown about what will happen when President-elect Donald Trump takes office, and the extent to which he will actually try and implement his terrifying immigration platform. But the larger point that Frenzen underscores is that a great deal of protections still exist, and one man can't unilaterally undermine them. "It's important to keep in mind that there are laws, and people cannot be legally summarily deported from the United States. They're entitled to hearings in front of judges. The government has to prove that they are deportable. Those procedural due process protections are of a constitutional nature," Frenzen explained, adding that the Supreme Court has found all of this to be protected by the Constitution, and "a new head of Homeland Security can't just ignore that."

The Supreme Court could change that down the road, but that would be "years and years away," according to Frenzen. The more pressing threat to undocumented/DACA students is likely financial—if they lose DACA-status in the next year or two, they'll be unable to legally work or to apply for student loans.

"If all of those undocumented students are going to have to un-enroll from their courses next year because they can't work legally and they can't obtain student loans, what the hell. We've made this symbolic statement, and then everyone leaves campus in six months or 18 months because they can't afford to be here anymore, that's not very good."

"If I was a billionaire and I had a spare million dollars, I could donate a million dollars to USC and direct that it be used as a scholarship fund for undocumented college freshmen," Frenzen said, adding that universities can use their financial resources to ensure that undocumented students can remain at USC if the worst happens.

"The definition of a sanctuary campus is one that is still evolving but it goes beyond symbolism," Vallejo told LAist. "It is about sanctuary as protection and sanctuary as resources that will allow various segments of the USC undocumented community to succeed. These are things like guaranteeing funding to our AB540 and DACA students and access to legal assistance for undocumented students, their families, and those in mixed-status families. We see the university as our ally in these efforts."

Here's what you need to know right now if you are undocumented in Los Angeles (in English and en Español).

Note: This post was updated after publication to include an additional statement from Vallejo about the definition of a sanctuary campus.