Georgetown University
Georgetown University Credit: Darrow Montgomery

As college students finish their first semester under President Donald Trump, some are left with an unmet request: for their universities to declare themselves sanctuary campuses. Across the nation, students started a sanctuary campus movement in the days after Trump’s election. Their goal is to protect students living with unresolved migratory statuses by reducing university collaboration with immigration officials. 

In the wake of Trump’s victory, many universities issued formal statements in support of these students, but the schools are also bound to comply with federal immigration agents. Students, and often university staff and faculty, are caught in the balance of trying to make safe campuses without suggesting that they’ll defy the law.  

During his campaign, Trump promised to repeal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as DACA. An executive order issued under President Barack Obama, DACA offers those who came to the United States without immigration documents as children the opportunity to stay legally. DACA has saved about 750,000 young people from deportation. Its recipients are ineligible for federal student loan programs, but some of them have gone to college on private scholarships, by working while studying, or, in some states, on state aid at public schools.

Nearly 1,300 DACA recipients live in the D.C., according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. They often call themselves DREAMers after a failed bill that would have granted them legal protections and a path to citizenship. 

“We have no idea what is going to come in the upcoming weeks, what Trump is going to say about DACA,” says Maria Gaytan-Martinez, a 19-year-old DACA recipient studying psychology and government at Georgetown University. 

Students’ visions for sanctuary are manifold. They want all universities to stop cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but they also ask schools to remove some of the massive roadblocks in their way. For some immigrant students, an online admissions application mandating that they enter a Social Security number prevents them from applying at all. They wish financial aid officers were better prepared to explain what funding they can and cannot access. And at some schools, students have requested a new full-time staff person dedicated to helping immigrant students work through legal, financial, and emotional challenges. 

Though “sanctuary” may mean different things on different campuses, one aspect of the concept remains constant: protecting undocumented and DACA students. 

“I have grown up here, my entire life is here, and it just seems unfair that they wanted to deport me,” says Gaytan-Martinez. Originally from Mexico, she crossed the Arizona border with her parents, two older sisters, her nephew, and her niece when she was four. The family settled in Waukegan, Illinois. Her life changed when the Obama administration issued DACA in 2012. As a child entrant, the order has protected her from deportation. But she fears its repeal under Trump. 

In D.C., the presidents of Georgetown, George Washington University, American University, Trinity Washington University, and the University of the District of Columbia have all signed “The Statement in Support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program and our Undocumented Immigrant Students.” Howard University did not sign the statement and a spokesperson from the university declined to comment. The Catholic University of America signed a different supportive statement with other Catholic universities around the country.

But the statements were not sufficient for some, and students are still organizing to protect themselves under the Trump administration. 

“Everything they built for the last four years could be taken away in a few seconds,” says Claudia Quiñonez, 22, the local educational organizer for United We Dream, a national, youth-led immigrant organization with a network of more than 100,000 immigrants, allies, and affiliate organizations in 26 states. Quiñonez’s job is to help communities, including those on campuses, build movements for the rights of immigrants. She says DACA students are especially afraid because they could lose their protection.

At Georgetown, students and administrators have worked hard to find a balance. A few weeks after the election, members of Georgetown’s Sanctuary Campus Movement and Undocumented Students Group marched to university president John DeGioia’s office holding a petition asking him to declare the school a sanctuary for DREAMers, Muslims, and LGBTQ students alike. But Georgetown denied their request. 

“They were open, and they seem very determined to come with an agreement with us about how to improve the campus, but they are very hesitant about naming it ‘sanctuary’ because they don’t want to be a target since we are in D.C.,” says Gaytan-Martinez, who is a member of the Undocumented Students Group. 

Sara, 22, who asked for anonymity to protect her identity, is a DACA recipient studying at Georgetown and says that the job of the Undocumented Student Group is to voice community concerns, meet with administrators, and ask for beneficial policies.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen or if Georgetown will ever come out as a sanctuary campus, but the university has often made statements of big support to undocumented students and for me that’s unique,” she says. 

The students asked for the creation of a website that explains the application process and provides legal resources to people living in the country without immigration documents. The group also pushed to have a full-time coordinator for DREAMers, which ultimately led to Arelis Palacios, a senior associate director In Georgetown’s Office of Global Education, to take on a formal role helping and guiding DACA students through an uncertain time.

“I’m overwhelmingly grateful to our university for its commitment to their success,” says Palacios. “These are some of the most resilient and powerful souls you will meet.”

At nearby GW, members of the Feminist Student Union, Students for Justice in Palestine, Fossil Free GW, and the Progressive Student Union issued a letter demanding that the university become a sanctuary campus for Muslims and DREAMers. 

GW has not assigned an administrative position within the university dedicated to DREAMers, but dean for student affairs Peter Konwerski says that the university has the resources to refer students to the services they need. “We work really closely with them to make them feel like they have a personal guide and a lot of time we referred them directly to a person,” he says. He adds that the university was already helping the immigrant student community through legal clinics, mental health services, and staff support.

Meanwhile, the University of the District of Columbia has offered students financial support through a policy change. In 2015, the D.C. Council drafted a bill called “UDC Dream Act Amendment of 2015,” which enables local DREAMers and DACA recipients to qualify for in-state tuition. The law went into effect last month. UDC has also partnered with United We Dream to offer educational workshops and guidance. 

Policies and university programs have made many young immigrant students feel less vulnerable. For Gaytan-Martinez, the most important part of becoming a sanctuary campus, though, is the message it sends: Universities are safe spaces where everyone is welcomed. 

“I feel like there are a lot of students on this campus who aren’t open about their status, who are afraid and I know they are struggling, and I just want to be a role model,” she says.