Penn, Swarthmore and what it really means to be a ‘sanctuary campus’

“The idea that the entire campus is protected from ICE is probably not legally how it’s going to play out.”

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Penn was the first Pennsylvania college to become a sanctuary campus, declaring its intentions shortly after Donald Trump was elected. Swarthmore joined in early December, and students and alumni began movements to recommend other Pennsylvania universities go the sanctuary route. Not to be outdone, Republican state Rep. Jerry Knowles crafted a bill threatening to withhold funding from state-related and state universities that don’t comply with immigration officials, even though none of these types of universities have declared themselves sanctuary campuses.

Such is the fervor around “sanctuary” anything these days. One side is pushing for sanctuary protections and the other is fighting to punish groups that make sanctuary declarations. The actual purpose of “sanctuaries,” particularly sanctuary campuses, is far less clear. Do they provide any more protection to undocumented students? And do universities that aren’t sanctuary campuses provide any less?

The answer to both questions is probably no. The symbolic nature of a sanctuary campus may provide comfort but from a legal and practical standpoint, experts suggest, sanctuary campuses do very little.  

Maria Blanco, executive director of the Undocumented Legal Services Center at UC-Davis, said sanctuary campuses come in about three different types: Those that bar campus police from enforcing immigration orders, those that don’t share student information with immigration enforcement officials and those that deny entry without warrants.

Penn and Swarthmore both made similar declarations and fit into the latter two categories of Blanco’s sanctuary campus definitions. Neither will allow immigration officials on campus or release information about undocumented students to them without warrants, according to details released by the schools several weeks ago.

But without warrants or probable cause no university could willingly let immigration officials or any outside law enforcement into campus dorms or grant them access to private student records without potentially facing legal blowback.

The Fourth Amendment, Blanco said, requires a particular need and probable cause for records to be turned over. She compared immigration officials asking for a blanket request of undocumented student records to a local police force asking for a request of all students who had been arrested for underage drinking. The Fourth Amendment and the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act would bar a university from sharing that information even if it wanted to.

By these measures, Blanco said, all colleges are technically sanctuary campuses, at least by Penn and Swarthmore’s definitions. But she said decisions of schools like Penn and Swarthmore helped clarify the already-existing policies.

“The problem is sort of in general people think [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] has extraordinary powers that aren’t the same as those of law enforcement and if they come to you and say, ‘you’re here illegally’ that they might think ‘oh I do have to turn people over,’” Blanco said. “It’s important that it be enunciated that they will not.”

Though ICE couldn’t enter a dorm without a warrant, it can approach people without warrants in public. It would likely be impossible for any university to deny entry to immigration officials on the open spaces of their campus, and a sanctuary campus declaration would likely carry no weight if an immigration official walked onto campus and made an arrest without a warrant.

“The idea that the entire campus is protected from ICE is probably not legally how it’s going to play out,” said Jennifer Lee, a law professor at Temple who leads clinics assisting low wage workers and immigrants.

A Penn spokesperson did not respond to a request asking how the university planned to bar entry to immigration officials in open spaces on campus.  

Other universities have acknowledged the limitations of being a sanctuary campus. In a letter published in the Washington Post, a Brown official said “we understand that private universities and colleges do not have legal protection from entry by members of law enforcement or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”  

Penn State declined students’ requests to become a sanctuary campus. President Eric Barron said declaring it a sanctuary campus wouldn’t offer any protections not already offered.

“If used, it could imply that our university has the authority to exempt our campus from federal immigration laws, when in fact no university has that authority,” he said. “It also implies incorrectly a university is able to provide special protections to undocumented individuals beyond the law. That also is not the case.”

There have been no recorded incidents of immigration enforcement officials arresting students on campus, Blanco said. While she and Lee dispute the practical purposes of sanctuary campuses, they believe there is importance in comforting and educating the student population about the details.  

“There’s something symbolic about it that I think is important,” Lee said, “in terms of just signifying that the community stands for immigration status and members of community living through uncertain times.”