City and University React to Trump’s Election, Consider “Sanctuary” Designations
By David Alexander

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In the wake of President-elect Donald Trump vowing to deport all immigrants in the country illegally, many fear sweeping policy changes that would result in rampant deportation.

Roughly 200 Santa Clara University students staged a walkout late last month, imploring university administrators to declare SCU a “sanctuary campus.” The walkout, organized by the Undocumented Students and Allies Association, was little more than a symbolic gesture to express students disdain for Trump’s vow to rid the country of those here illegally.

Ray Plaza, director of the office of diversity and inclusion at SCU, said the rally started the discussion about “sanctuary campus” between students and administrators. He said the consideration to designate the campus a “sanctuary” is not a way to circumvent federal law.

“It is not illegal for the university to provide educational opportunities to students,” he said. “The university is trying to be very clear that it wants to support its students, that the current federal policy should at least be extended until other options can be discussed.”

Federal policy, or the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, colloquially known as “deferred action,” is an executive order issued by President Obama. The order permits conditional residence to those immigrated to the country before the age of 18, pass a criminal background check, graduated from, or obtained a GED, a U.S. high school and demonstrate “good moral character.” Additionally, the order also grants permanent residence to those who attend an institute of higher education.   

If SCU puts a “sanctuary campus” policy in place it will signify that it prefers Trump continue that policy.

However, Plaza denied that the policy would be political, saying it would instead be a way to “assess the needs and what the mood is like” surrounding immigration. While the university is doing some “fact finding” to establish where its Jesuit peers stand, Plaza was quick to say that SCU will not do anything that could “jeopardize its federal funding.”

Erin Kimura-Walsh, associate director of Lead Scholars program, which provides support services for first-generation college students, said many students she works with are immigrants who have residency under the DREAM Act. She said it is important for students to “feel safe considering the unknown future.”

While she said the university needs to “be very aware” of the political climate so that it can “protect” students, she acknowledged she doesn’t “know what that will require.” However, she said she generally favors an extension of the Obama-era policies.

“I think it is incredibly important that [undocumented students] are able to continue their lives here, whether their education or their career,” Kimura-Walsh said.

Members of the Undocumented Students and Allies Association declined to interviewed for this story.

The issue is not contained to the university. The Santa Clara City Council discussed designating the city a “sanctuary city” at its December 6 meeting. Councilman Dominic Caserta proposed the idea, saying “We have your back. We will continue to support you” while claiming the city is “not trying to be Berkley.”

Police Chief Mike Sellers said the resolution basically enshrines the already-in-place policy of the police department.

“We don’t target individuals who may be in violation,” Sellers said. “We don’t conduct raids.”

However, Sellers said that Santa Clara Police Department cooperates with federal immigration officials when they come to town.

Some people had concerns that such a policy would jeopardize the city’s federal funding, which City Manager Rajeev Batra said is between $3.5 and $3.75 million per year. City Attorney Richard Nosky said the city can “mitigate the risk” of losing federal grant money, “not eliminate it.”

Planning Commissioner Mike O’Halleran said the city should not be debating this and such a resolution is essentially saying the city doesn’t want to follow federal law, adding that by raising this issue the city “is becoming Berkley.”

Local Deborah Bress call the resolution “silly” and “foolish.”

“I don’t know why we would want to invite a problem and put a bullseye on ourselves,” she said. “I don’t know why we are sticking our nose in federal business.”

Still, many came out in support of the resolution, including Rev. Jeff Moore, president of the Silicon Valley NAACP, Priya Murthy, policy and advocacy director at Service Immigrants Rights and Education Network, and San Jose State University sophomore Esra Altun, who -- despite a lack of evidence -- believes she was targeted for assault in a university parking garage for wearing a hijab.

The Council referred the matter to an ad hoc committee to massage the language in the resolution. That committee consists of Councilmembers Caserta, O’Neill and Watanabe and meets Dec. 20.

Like most any policy, the details could prove to make a big difference.

Deep Gulasekaram, professor of law at SCU, said designating a city or campus as a “sanctuary” has no legal meaning, instead acting more as a symbolic act.

“There is nothing about what a city can do or a campus can do that changes the nature or the meaning of federal law,” he said. “By saying you are a sanctuary campus doesn’t really change a thing. It can’t really protect students from federal law enforcement agents.”

As a matter of federalism, local police are under no obligation to aid federal immigration officers with deportation efforts, he said. He likened the policy to federal drug policy. While marijuana remains federally illegal, it has been legalized in California, and while a federal law enforcement could still technically arrest those in possession of marijuana locally, there is virtually “zero chance of that happening.”

While the federal government cannot compel local police to comply with the enforcement on federal immigration policy, it can incentivize compliance, usually by tying federal funding to cooperation, such as it has done with highway patrol grants that are tied to enforcing a legal drinking age, Gulasekaram said.

Although Trump could revoke the DREAM Act his first day in office, going after college students would be a “highly unpopular” political move. Gulasekaram said that he “would not expect, in a Trump administration for [students in the country under the DREAM Act] to become a target.” If the community believes local police will turn them over to federal immigration officials, it makes it less likely those communities will cooperate with police, he added.

A “sanctuary” designation doesn’t alter policy, but the power of such a symbolic act should not be dismissed, Gulasekaram said.

“To have people in power in administration acknowledge that has an ameliorative effect,” he said. “Low-level federalism can have an impact on how federal authorities enforce laws.”