ALBANY — With the potential for additional immigration restrictions under President Donald Trump, universities and colleges across New York are looking into how to protect their international and foreign-born students.
Many schools statewide have put policies in place, but there are few legal actions the institutions can take. And becoming a “sanctuary campus,” as some have chosen to do, may increase federal scrutiny.
“We are a free society, but we are regulated,” said Douglas Gerhardt, partner and attorney at the law firm Harris Beach. “When you’re dealing with the issue of individuals who have something other than a U.S. resident immigration status, there are laws that apply.”
Trump last week issued an executive order banning travel from seven countries with significant Muslim populations — Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia.
In response, colleges and universities, including the State and City University systems, have been discouraging students from the affected countries from leaving the country. They also have been trying to locate all affected students, some of whom were delayed at airports and borders.
SUNY enrolls approximately 22,140 international students, about 320 of whom are from the seven countries affected by the ban. CUNY has 8,881 international students on F-1 student visas — 120 of them are from those seven countries.
University and system leaders from across the state issued statements saying they were looking into the 90-day travel ban, and doing what they legally could to protect students. They also have been setting up websites and points of contact, updating students with information and providing help to those who need it.
A number of schools nationwide anticipated immigration issues and began putting protections into place after Trump’s victory in November. Some schools, for example, have said the campus police will not participate in the enforcement of federal immigration law unless compelled to do so by court order or other legal mandate. SUNY and CUNY have that policy in place.
Some schools, such as Cornell University, declared themselves to be a “sanctuary campus.”
Cornell takes in the fourth-highest number of foreign students in the state, with 6,008 international students as of 2015-16, according to Institute of International Education data.
“We have an obligation to assert our principles when policies and administrative decisions are contrary to those principles,” Cornell interim president Hunter Rawlings III said in a statement after the ban.
The definition of “sanctuary campus” is vague, and schools, especially public universities and colleges, still have to obey federal immigration laws and enforcement, Gerhardt said. Though they can increase the amount of hoops to jump through, requiring immigration enforcement officers to go through top officials or even have a subpoena before providing student data.
A “true” sanctuary school wouldn’t give out a student’s information and creates a “safe space” for students, particularly undocumented students, said Natalia Aristizabal, lead organizer at Make the Road New York, one of the largest immigration advocacy organizations in New York City.
The majority of higher education institutions in the state, including both SUNY and CUNY, have instead opted to implement protection policies but not officially adopted the title of “sanctuary campus.”
Policies include not overturning student information to immigration enforcement authorities except under court order, and not requesting citizenship or immigration status data except where required to in connection with tuition or financial aid eligibility.
“Many of our constituents are requesting that colleges and universities become sanctuaries that provide students with safety, community, wisdom, and social mobility,” SUNY board Chairman H. Carl McCall said during a Martin Luther King Day address several weeks ago. “I would argue that we already are.”
SUNY’s individual campus presidents do not have the independent legal authority to declare a school to be a sanctuary campus, so action would have to come from the SUNY Board of Trustees.
If the schools did label themselves as such, they would be “identifying themselves as being in opposition to the federal government,” said Danielle Rizzo, an immigration attorney with Harris Beach and chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s liaison committee with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
By doing so, they would risk federal funding, she said. “[It’s] being more accurate to just state what the policies are, as opposed to just adopting that label.”
The Trump administration already has threatened to withhold federal funding from “sanctuary cities.” Federal funding to schools could include Perkins and Pell grants.
“I think its morally justified, but it has to be done with a clear-eyed appreciation for all of the risks involved — and there are risks,” said Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, the union that represents SUNY employees, referring to sanctuary campuses.
Universities and colleges also work with the federal government to provide student visa forms — a process that also could be threatened if the Trump administration chose to retaliate against the sanctuary schools.
Some schools already operate in cities that have declared themselves to be sanctuaries, such as New York City, which may afford students some additional protections.
The “symbolic embracing” of the sanctuary concept can be powerful, especially with students fearing additional restrictions, said Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, assistant professor of international education at New York University’s Steinhardt School.
“There’s just this unknown and this fear currently,” Cherng said, adding that students from countries affected and not affected by the ban have come to him for advice. “I say, ‘We are in it together. We’ll see what happens tomorrow,'” he said.
NYU, which has not officially declared itself to be a sanctuary campus but has protection policies in place, takes in the most foreign students in the nation with15,543 foreign students as of 2015-16, according to the Institute of International Education.
Numbers matter, especially for public universities and colleges. International students typically pay higher tuition rates than in-state students. As of 2015-16, New York had the second-highest number of international students (California is first) with 114,316, according to the Institute and NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
The possibility that the administration could repeal the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which protects undocumented students from deportation, has caused further unrest, UUP’s Kowal said.
Some universities have been providing resources such as pro-bono legal assistance to students and staff stuck outside the country or having difficulties at borders.
“In almost all circumstances deportation is subject to some sort of court action,” he said. Many of the courts already are backlogged four to five years, Kowal said. “Five years from now it’s 2021 and maybe there’s a different president, hopefully. And the policies change and the individuals are safe.”
Read SUNY’s policies here: http://bit.ly/2jxEm90 and more information on CUNY’s policies here: http://bit.ly/2jxGTQH.
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