The Dangers of Uninformed Activism

Recently, students and professors at Emory utilized petitions, emails and protests in an attempt to convince administration to designate Emory a “sanctuary campus”. The most recent protest came in the form of a demonstration outside President Claire Sterk’s inauguration, and was organized and largely populated by a student-faculty group called the Emory Sanctuary Coalition. This group operates with the stated intent of ensuring that Emory remains “an institution where students are safe to learn and grow without fear of discrimination,” in which the word “students” refers primarily to undocumented students facing aggressive immigration policies under Donald Trump’s administration.

I fully support protecting Emory’s undocumented students, and was proud of Emory when the University began offering financial aid to DACA-protected individuals. Emory can and should provide a supportive community and legal aid for undocumented students, as these necessary services have material and positive effects on undocumented students’ lives.

To determine if becoming a “sanctuary campus” could have similarly tangible effects, I researched the policies governing how federal immigration enforcement agencies interface with universities, and  what exactly being a “sanctuary campus” would protect against. How would adopting this designation hamper Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) efforts to detain Emory’s undocumented students? I discovered that the “sanctuary campus” movement is unlikely to accomplish its goal due to a preoccupation with a purely symbolic designation that would not produce any substantial or positive results.

ICE openly stated that they do not conduct raids or arrests at schools, and sent field officers a memo to this effect. According to PBS, the agency has never conducted a raid on a college campus. FERPA also prevents universities from releasing student information unless legally compelled to do so by subpoena. Constitutional law comes into play as well: basic Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure severely limit ICE agents in their capacity to enter a college campus to conduct any deportations, detentions, or investigations.

Due to ICE policy, FERPA statutes and Constitutional protections, there are two instances in which and ICE agent could gain access to any student records held by Emory University:

  1.     The student gives signed permission,
  2.     The agency is in possession of a relevant court order, such as a warrant or subpoena.

Additionally, there are three circumstances in which ICE agents can enter Emory University property. They are as follows:

  1.     Emory University officials give their permission,
  2.     The agency is in possession of a relevant judge order, such as a warrant or subpoena,
  3.     Exigent circumstances, or a situation that presents a clear and immediate danger in a public setting.

Discerning readers might have noticed that these lists are shockingly similar, and familiar, as they’re essentially the same rules that determine if a police officer is allowed to search your house. Essentially, ICE agents can only come in to Emory in order to investigate a potentially undocumented student with a warrant or express permission from Emory University. Even further, these agencies must have a subpoena to access any information as to which students might be undocumented, as Emory University isn’t allowed to release this information.

Since ICE requires University permission to enter campus, and Claire Sterk has already made it abundantly clear she will not give this permission, then the Emory administration has already committed to protecting undocumented students to the fullest extent possible under the law. That is not an opinion; that is a fact. Subsequently, I fail to see how pushing the University to designate itself a “sanctuary campus” accomplishes anything other than allowing a group of protestors to congratulate themselves for exerting their will on University administration.

In fact, naming Emory a “sanctuary campus” would have a series of serious and negative drawbacks. Emory Sanctuary Coalition’s desire to “fight back against” Georgia state legislators threatening to cut state funding to the University is misguided and tragically uninformed. Emory receives $96 million a year in state funding, including $84 million in Medicaid. The other $12 million accounts for a variety of research grants and scholarships that are vital components of how some students cover the cost of Emory tuition. Somehow, the Emory Sanctuary Coalition would have us believe that forcing the University to adopt their purely symbolic term is more important than the medical care and scholarships that state funding provides for economically disadvantaged university constituents. Such a “fight” would have no winners, and leave Emory students as the only true losers.

Additionally, even as the term “Sanctuary Campus” does nothing to further protect undocumented students, it will draw national attention to the undocumented students currently at Emory. If the worry is that ICE will more aggressively investigate schools in the coming months, why is the Coalition fighting so hard to adopt a term that will undoubtedly draw national attention to our undocumented students? The term affords absolutely no additional material protections for these students, and creates a situation in which federal immigration enforcement agents are more likely to attempt to take actions against Emory students.

I will address the counter-argument here, namely that the protections upon which I’ve based my argument are likely to change under Donald Trump. As baseless and offensive as Trump’s statements about undocumented immigrants have been, he cannot amend the United States Constitution by bigotry alone. The Fourth Amendment protections guaranteeing that ICE officers cannot detain Emory students without the University’s permission or a warrant are here to stay. Claire Sterk’s statements regarding her desire to protect undocumented students have made it clear that she does not intend to give University permission; thus she has already promised to protect these students as extensively as legally possible. With this in mind, these protests are less about achieving parity or protection for undocumented students, but instead now express purely emotional reactions with little factual basis.

Regardless of how understandable an emotional response to Trump’s immigration policies may be, emotions cannot justify actions that would only harm the University and its constituents. Protests such as the one held outside Sterk’s inauguration have become a way for students to participate in something they believe to be morally validating while further endangering undocumented students and potentially denying some of Emory’s most disadvantaged students much-needed state scholarship money.

I must ask who the intended audience of this protest was, as all the relevant Emory administrators were indoors and thus out of earshot at the inauguration ceremony with which the protest was intentionally planned to coincide.

These are certainly tumultuous and frightening times, and I cannot fault students for protesting about something they believe will help. In the next four years, we will have a serious need for people who fight for what they believe in. What I do take issue with, however, are modern-day crusaders who refuse to research the actual statutory backgrounds they are working against, or give thought to their actions’ implications beyond their own moral gratification. This creates the type of pseudo-ethics driven and factless dialogue that has dominated right-wing ideology for years; it pains me to see the left adopting similar tactics.

The right to free speech, which I defend indiscriminately, carries the responsibility to use that speech in a way that does not directly endanger others. Speech is powerful, and those engaging in the sacred hallmark of American democracy called civil action must consider the material consequences of those actions. When it comes to naming Emory a “sanctuary campus”, the consequences are negative, and those fighting for such a designation ought to be mindful of the victories in which the cost of winning far outweighs any gains thereby obtained.