If immigration officials come knocking on their door, some universities won’t answer. A look at the Midwest’s only sanctuary campus

Words by Mia Simone Rush
Audio and Photos by Brooke Haesemeyer and Megan Ellis
Graphic by Megan Ellis

On Thursday November 17, 2017 Drake University’s students, faculty and staff received an email from the university’s president Marty Martin, stating the following:

Drake University President Earl “Marty” Martin.

Drake University will be a sanctuary – “a place of refuge or safety” – for undocumented members of our community who now find themselves under heightened threat of investigation and deportation by the federal government. Our commitment to supporting these vulnerable students, colleagues, and friends has been clear for some time and has only intensified over the last three weeks. The inspiration and energy we draw from the diversity of our community makes us stronger. We are not willing to give this up.

Our commitment to be a place of refuge or safety will be made manifest in a number of different ways. Drake University does not and will not act on behalf of government agents to enforce immigration laws for the purpose of facilitating deportations. We will continue to take appropriate steps to guard the privacy of student and employee records and information, including citizenship status. We will seek to uphold and advocate for the status of educational institutions as sensitive locations consistent with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement memorandum of October 24, 2011. And, we will look for additional opportunities to advocate for and support the undocumented members of our community.


Setting the Stage

Sanctuary campus is a term modeled after “sanctuary city”. Under this term, a policy of protection is adopted in order to ensure that unauthorized immigrants have access to spaces and services provided by said city. For a college campus, this could include providing federal immigration officials with private information concerning undocumented students and the refusal to work with them.

The issue with colleges and universities declaring themselves as sanctuaries wasn’t urgent until after the election of President Donald Trump, who on many occasions has pledged to repeal former president Barack Obama’s executive order in 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) act. DACA granted temporary status to 750,000 young undocumented people brought to the United States as children and clearance from deportation.

To be eligible for DACA, the immigrants had to be younger than 31 years of age, have arrived under age of 16, lived in the United States for five years and meet other conditions, including no criminal past.

And while Trump has gone back on his statements saying he plans “to work something out” for people in the DACA program while ending Obama’s previous orders, that is not enough.

The Catalyst

Passing the resolution for Drake University to become a sanctuary campus in the city of Des Moines, Iowa started in the Faculty Senate. In mid-November, Professor Gutiérrez Nájera, reached out to friends and colleagues via social media about the growing sanctuary movement on campuses across the United States and expressed her hope that Drake would to become one.

Because Professor Gutiérrez Nájera is a passionate advocate for members of the undocumented community, fellow colleague, Debra DeLeat said that she was delighted to be able to support her initiative. DeLaet suggested that they should consider co-sponsoring a Faculty Senate Resolution, Bengu Erguner-Tekinalp was an initial co-sponsor, as well. To draft the resolution, they modeled their approach on a range of other institutions that were in the act of pursuing sanctuary campus status.

Coming in two parts, the resolution spoke to two subsets. The first was undocumented members and DACA students on campus and the campus community. The second was more broadly directed at immigrant populations.

In the advancement of the resolution, DeLaet and colleagues attained additional co-sponsors and collected signatures from faculty, staff, students, and alumni, which received huge support among the campus community.

But Professor Gutiérrez Nájera was not alone in looking for a way to protect and support undocumented students or those that hold DACA status. Former Equity and Inclusion Student Senator, Kenia Calderon sprung into action as well.

Student Senator Calderon brought the idea to pass a resolution that stated the student body wanted to make Drake a sanctuary campus, we came up with a motion including how we agreed and its impact on the student body,” said former Equity and Inclusion Student Senator Deshauna Carter.

When it was time to vote on the motion, the decision was unanimous as the resolution passed immediately. As many of the students that would be affected are student leaders and even those who aren’t they are still members of the Drake community. They were not an abstract notion of an undocumented person, but someone they knew and that resonated with senate members.

This wasn’t surprising to Senator Carter as she noted that it was Calderon’s passion that made the impact. “To see how passionate she was about it, the decision wasn’t hard to make because we saw how necessary it was campus.”

President Martin spoke about the night he was briefed by the Provost and Chief Administration Officer on the night of the faculty senate meeting when the resolution was addressed. “Honestly I knew or at least I knew the core of what the response was going to be right away,” said President Martin. “And it’s what ultimately came out.”

A few weeks later, the resolution passed.

“President Martin and Provost Mattison responded positively to this motion and quickly took action on campus,” said DeLaet. “I am incredibly grateful to them for their leadership on this issue.”

Focusing on the first part of the faculty senate resolution because it is the population that he as a president holds responsibility for, President Martin’s decision to endorse it was aimed at and done as an exercise in showing care and compassion for undocumented and DACA students. “We’ve invited them to be apart of this community and we’ve said that we will be this welcoming and inclusive place,” said Martin. “When it comes time to live up to that declaration we have to live up to it.”

It’s Not Easy for Everyone

Out of the ten colleges or universities willing to declare themselves “sanctuaries” for undocumented students, Drake University is the first in the Midwest. But this decision didn’t come without backlash.

Some institutions have rejected sanctuary plans because they feel it encourages law-breaking. For example New Mexico State University’s president, Garrey Carruthers, told the New York Times, that banning federal agents from campus might imperil its funding. Meanwhile Republican lawmakers have threatened to remove funding from any colleges or universities that establish themselves as “so-called” sanctuary campuses. Placing targets on their backs.

In January Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, introduced legislation that would do just that, saying Congress should strip schools of billions of dollars in federal financial aid unless they start cooperating with authorities. The legislation would require the Department of Homeland Security to keep a list of sanctuary campuses and then send it to the Education Department, which would cancel federal payments.

At Iowa State University, former Student body President, Cole Stuadt spoke about rumors that they ISU could lose funding and financial aid declaring themselves a sanctuary campus. “A code of Federal Law you can’t lose your financial aid because the president decides you go to this institution you can’t have it,” said Stuadt. “But there’s a lot of grants and research grants that can be kept.”

Just one week before senior Robert Ortiz introduced a resolution to ensure that all students without documentation or DACA status be given equal opportunity at the institution. On April 4, 2017, Iowa lawmakers advanced a bill, House File 265, in the Statehouse seeking to limit cities, counties and public universities from enacting policies that create safe havens for undocumented immigrants.

The legislation goes as follows:

An Act prohibiting the state, counties, cities, and certain postsecondary educational institutions from limiting or restricting enforcement of federal immigration laws. Be it enacted by the general assembly of the State of Iowa:

With the risk of funding came a shift in the conversation not only around the protection of undocumented students but how does that play on the rest of the student body. There were many conversations about the pros and cons of the decision and with no set policy would it be worth the risk. “There was no one who had been made an example of yet, but there was threats of it from the administration during the campaign,” said Stuadt. “So given the knowledge we had at the time, we decided that doing that (declaring ISU a sanctuary campus) was not the best option, right now.”

While President Martin received positive response to the Drake resolution, he also received commentary that has been less than positive. “I think the interpretation of the message was one of me, as president of Drake University declaring the campus as a sanctuary campus gets interpreted by some as a political statement,” said President Martin. “That was never the intent.”

Instead it was done in a way to convey the aspiration for the campus to be a safe haven to those who could be negatively impacted and an obligation to protect the campus community as a whole.

Despite the resolution not going as far as planned at Iowa State University, it was amended to clarify the definition of “sanctuary campus” for the ISU campus and community with provisions, without defying the law.

Ortiz also asked the Iowa Board Regents, which oversees the three universities, to reassert its commitment to students as well. In a statement from Josh Lehmen, Senior Communication Director for the Iowa Board of Regents stated,

“Among the core values in the Board of Regents strategic plan are having diverse and inclusive experiences on our campuses. Iowa’s public universities have provided information and support to all those connected with our campuses that have recently had questions or concerns. Providing safe and secure campuses is one of the Board’s highest priorities, and we will continue to comply with all state and federal laws.”

Furthermore, there had been conversations during the week between the introduction and when the resolution amendments were voted on with a variety of students from both sides. “In the grand scheme of things this is the best route to go right now. I think they know we’re supporting them whether it’s with a label or not,” said Stuadt.

Moving Forward

It is uncertain what will happen to undocumented students. Movements towards sanctuary status campuses, while controversial and not always expected, are necessary in order to ensure the safety of student’s nation wide.

At Drake University, the priority of the institution is to become an evermore welcoming and inclusive community. Within the continuous improvement plan there are multiple objectives outlined with performance measures to insure this happens, heavily based on education and programming on diverse issues for all.

This same message rings true for Iowa State University as they seek to give students the opportunity to put themselves ahead and succeed in life through education.

“We can’t simply extend that welcome and then once students are here from diverse communities, not follow up on it,” said President Martin. “We need to show them support when faced with something like this (threat of deportation or DACA status). So the message is one of an institution committed to the equality and inclusion on a broad scale and then living that out when called to do so in specific instances.”