In the aftermath of the election, thousands of students, professors and alumni from elite schools including Harvard, Yale and Brown, have signed petitions asking that their universities become “sanctuaries” for undocumented students and other community members who are worried about deportation under a Trump administration. As a result, school administrators are scrambling to formulate a response that’s legal, compassionate and practical.
It’s a complicated issue. Undocumented students are currently protected from deportation by an executive order signed by President Obama, which also allows them to work and obtain driver’s licenses. But with the election of Donald Trump – with his strong anti-immigrant rhetoric – an untold number of students and their families are facing uncertain futures. And though Trump has vowed to deport “criminals” first, it’s hard to know which databases his administration will be targeting.
More than 4,000 Harvard students already have signed a petition asking the university to protect undocumented students by, among other things, immediately hiring a new dean of equity, diversity and inclusion, creating a fund to help students with legal expenses, and designating Harvard Memorial Church a refuge for students facing deportation.
“We do not need words of comfort, your pity, or your sympathy,” the petition reads. “We need action that demonstrates this University’s dedication to concretely support all of its students, regardless of their immigration status.”
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But it’s unclear what role universities are legally allowed to play, should they choose to take a stand. Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education told the Washington Post, it’s simply too soon to know what colleges can or will do to help undocumented students. “[B]ut whether a college can say, ‘We’re a sanctuary,’ and have it make any meaningful difference is unclear.”
It’s also a deeply contentious issue and one that a significant subset of the population has little patience for. (Click through the Washington Post article and read the comments.)
Either way, the debate is about to get louder. Today, some 120 colleges are planning a walk-out or other public action starting at 3pm eastern. You can follow the news under the hashtags #sanctuarycampus, #sanctuarycity, and #sanctuaryeverywhere.
We'll keep you posted.
Ellen McGirt is a senior editor at Fortune.