Even with finals fast approaching, our campus is still faced with the issues that Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency raise now, next semester and beyond. The most prominent example of our campus’ response to Trump came in a petition addressed to President Katherine Bergeron, Board of Trustees Chair Pamela Zilly, Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion John McKnight, Dean of the Faculty Abby Van Slyck and Dean of the College Jefferson Singer that circulated throughout the Conn community three and a half weeks ago. The petition called on them “to uphold and develop policies that refuse or limit compliance with federal enforcement agents (ICE) and local law enforcement so as to ensure that the privacy, immigration status, and information of undocumented members of our community are fully protected.”
As stated in its introduction the petition originated from fears about the inequities already created by the president-elect’s stated intentions to deport over three million people. One issue of focus was the prospect of Trump fulfilling his promise to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and concerns over how such an action would affect Conn students registered in the program. DACA is the Obama administration’s 2012 program to give legal status to undocumented individuals who would have been covered under the DREAM Act, which had failed to gain a supermajority vote for cloture in the Senate in 2010.
Under DACA, undocumented individuals whose conditions for deportation are not a high priority for the government can be granted a two-year deferral from being deported from the United States that can also be renewed. These conditions include having been under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012, coming to the United States before turning 16, continuous residence in the United States since June 15, 2007, not having been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors and not otherwise posing a threat to national security or public safety. Being a student, having completed high school or an equivalent or having been honorably discharged from one of the armed forces also apply.
The petition’s creation quickly elicited an official response from President Bergeron, which was sent out through the usual e-mail channels on Nov. 18, three days after the petition had begun to circulate and less than twenty-four hours after SGA President Ramzi Kaiss sent an email sharing the petition with all members of the class mailing lists. In her statement Bergeron expressed that she shared the concerns of the petition’s signers. However, her actual response to it was:
“The petition specifically asks the College to declare itself a sanctuary campus. In light of this, I want to be clear about our commitment: we can and will use all available means to protect the rights of our students to participate fully in the benefits of a Connecticut College education—both now and in the future.”
The vagueness of the language clearly reflects an attempt at the time to keep the College’s actual policies on its protection of students’ rights, especially relating to immigration, unclear to the public. I would see the decision as a likely precaution against retaliation under the future administration for undermining its policies. Trump has already made clear his intentions to try to deny federal funding to “sanctuary cities” (whether he succeeds is a whole other issue), and were he able to do the same to colleges, the results would be devastating. Not only would colleges lose the large amount of student financial aid that the federal government pays for, but their faculty would also lose access to federal research grants, such as Fulbrights, that play a huge role in many professors’ work and research.
That the College has attempted to shield itself from retaliation becomes apparent in Bergeron’s second statement responding to the petition, which was sent thirteen days later on Dec. 1. This letter was important and vital for understanding the College’s immigration policy because it contained clear public statements that the College stands by its policies not to release confidential education records to law enforcement without sound legal reasoning. It also acknowledged that the College has retained immigration-specific legal counsel.
In it Bergeron claims that “we have begun establishing our own protocols to monitor developments in Washington, D.C.; and we will be reaching out to the American Council on Education and other higher education lobbies to keep apprised of developments and opportunities to have input on legislation around this issue.” This language suggests that the College has been collaborating with legal and policy experts to determine what our school can state publically about its positions and policies related to immigration, i.e. what she can say in this letter. The bringing of an immigration lawyer to campus not just to advise DACA students, but for “others in order to increase our collective understanding of immigration issues” suggests that the College has already been developing clear legal positions on what to do in the event that our stance on immigration policy is challenged by a law enforcement agency.
Certainly the most significant statement in the letter occurred at the end of the second-to-last paragraph, in which Bergeron claims: “In short, we are committed to making the Connecticut College campus a sanctuary for our undocumented students and for all members of this community.” This was perhaps the best rhetorical strategy for accepting the petitioners’ demands and indeed the demands of the sanctuary campus movement, most of which Bergeron did, without acknowledging their key demand that Conn place itself under the politically charged moniker of “sanctuary campus.”
Some additional points that are worth noting about the petition and Bergeron’s responses to it include the fact that while the petition focused mostly on concerns of undocumented students, it also included a statement buried in the middle about immigration concerns of the Islamic community. “We also fear that the Trump administration could revive the ‘Muslim Registry’ (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System) that required thousands of Muslims students, families and other immigrants after 9/11 to register their names with law-enforcement databases.” While this was followed by a call to refuse or limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities that call was contextualized, like much of the petition, by the protection of Conn’s undocumented members. The rights of Muslim members of our community, especially those who are not citizens, were not specifically mentioned in Bergeron’s letters.
Another point that neither the petition nor letters mentioned was the effect Trump’s policies could have on past, present, and future undocumented faculty and staff. Perhaps the most inclusive statement in the petition, which could apply to this and similar issues came in its statement: “By publicly announcing Connecticut College as a sanctuary campus, we are upholding our moral values and harkening back to our founding, which was rooted in principles of equity and access.” Bergeron’s aforementioned statement that we are “making the Connecticut College campus a sanctuary…for all members of this community” falls into the same vein. •