Emory Reviews ‘Sanctuary Campus’ Petition; Assesses Options

Emory administrators are “developing a strategy on how to protect undocumented students” in response to a petition signed by more than 1,500 members and 17 organizations of the Emory community requesting that the University become a “sanctuary campus,” Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Ajay Nair said.

The petition — sent to Nair, University President Claire E. Sterk and Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Stuart Zola — came 12 days after Republican Donald J. Trump won the presidential election and amid uncertainty surrounding the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The Student Government Association (SGA) endorsed the petition Monday by a vote of 26-2, with one abstention.

Issued by President Barack Obama in 2012, DACA is an executive order that allows undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before turning 16 years old to apply for a two-year renewable immigration status that protects them from deportation and allows them to work legally in the U.S. However, DACA status is not equivalent to citizenship. Trump has said that, if elected, he would terminate the executive order.

The election of Donald Trump presents a clear challenge to Emory’s core commitment to inclusiveness, particularly for undocumented members of our community. … We urgently demand concrete actions by Emory University to protect all students — especially our undocumented students at the College and in graduate programs,” the petition read.

There is no standard definition of a “sanctuary campus,” but the message of schools such as Wesleyan University (Conn.) and Columbia University (N.Y.) that have declared themselves so is clear: we will protect our undocumented students. The concept arose from that of a “sanctuary city,” such as Chicago, which shelters undocumented immigrants from prosecution despite their lack of legal documentation papers either in practice or by policy.

In Georgia, local officials are required by law to prove their compliance with federal detention requests — no city in the state can be designated a sanctuary city, including Atlanta.

Nonetheless, Mayor Kasim Reed recently told WABE that Atlanta will “be a welcoming city and … continue all of [its] outreach efforts to foreign-born individuals.”

In April 2015, Emory announced it would provide need-based institutional financial aid to undocumented students holding DACA status beginning from the Class of 2019. Prior to that policy change, Emory admitted undocumented students but placed them in the pool of international applicants, rendering them ineligible for any financial aid.

A Nov. 21 Facebook post on Nair’s wall signed by him, Sterk and Zola said that administrators would be “evaluating how best to serve those in our community whose immigration status puts them at risk.”

A Nov. 21 student-wide email, in which Sterk said that the sanctuary petition was “being reviewed by University leadership,” prompted a threat from State Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Cobb County to withhold state funding from the University, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I’m very sanguine about being able to pass a piece of legislation that says if you’re picking and choosing which laws you’re going to follow, state dollars aren’t going to follow,” the AJC reported that Ehrhart said.

Should Emory not comply with governmental orders and Ehrhart stick to his words, the Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) Scholarship and Tuition Equalization Grants, both of which are awarded to Georgia residents, could be at risk at Emory, the AJC said.

Although Trump has said he would rescind DACA, he has changed his public position on other matters such as the prosecution of Hillary Clinton since the election.

We don’t know what the situation will be … we want to be nimble so that when changes do happen, we can respond rapidly,” Nair said. “We’ll have to be prepared for anything, really.”

Measures taken would not be a political statement, but rather a protection of the mission of the University, he said.

“One of the critical values we have is the diversity … and undocumented students really enable us to reach our mission,” Nair said.

The requests in the sanctuary petition are not limited to measures to prevent undocumented students at Emory from deportation; they also include Emory’s consideration of students’ mental health post-election.

“We specifically demand the hiring/training of mental health professionals who have cultural competency in working with trauma-related issues of familial separation and the chronic threat of deportation,” the petition read.

Considering the perception of student responses to the election, such requests are unsurprising.

Nair, who was a dean at the University of Virginia in 2001, said the reaction to Trump’s victory at Emory was reminiscent of the campus atmosphere at UVA post-9/11.

“It was that state of shock — ‘how could this happen in our country?’ — that loss of innocence that we are maybe more vulnerable to racism and to xenophobia than we thought we actually were,” Nair said. “Americans were sort of targeted on 9/11, and not all Americans felt targeted after the election, but certain members of our community felt uncertain about their future.”

Last night, about 25 students and administrators met to discuss the resources requested by the students at the meeting “for those feeling anxiety” and for “the continuation of their college experience,” according to Assistant Vice President for Community Suzanne Onorato.

Onorato refused to disclose any further details of the meeting’s discussion, on the grounds that all potential measures are still in discussion stages. She said she didn’t know which organizations were represented, and she withheld the names of anyone present, but said that they were invited based on recommendations from those who sent the sanctuary petition, whom she also declined to name.

The remainder of students will be updated on the University’s evolving plans through emails to the community, Onorato said. The University plans to send one such email by Dec. 2, the date by which the petition requested a “detailed response to this letter,” she said.

Michelle Lou contributed reporting.

Correction (12/1/16 at 1:28 a.m.): The article mistakenly said that Nair was a dean at the University of Virginia in 2011. He was a dean at the University of Virginia in 2001.

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