This essay reflects on the campus sanctuary movement that accelerated in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, focusing on the promises and pitfalls for activists who pushed to have their campuses declared sanctuaries for undocumented students, staff, and faculty. It offers a personal case study that relates to the nationwide push for campus sanctuary.


This short essay, which I am writing in summer 2019, really begins in November 2016. In that month and those that followed, many of us in the higher education business felt dazed by unimaginable US presidential election results and fretted over how they would affect our students, especially those who had been able to access our institutions with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) credentials or other means. Like just about everyone else I knew, I wanted to do something local and pragmatic, something that could affect my own surroundings in the immediate future. It made sense to me that I should start at the University of Notre Dame, where I work. The previous semester, I had taught a university seminar open exclusively to first-year students that focused on race and popular culture. In response to the first writing assignment, which tasked students with reflecting on their own racialization, one student wrote a remarkable paper about her undocumented status. On the morning after the election, all I could think about was that beautiful essay and how its author must be feeling. I reached out to lend some moral support and hoped I was not alone in doing so. In the days that followed, I wrote an open letter to my university's president about the student—who had granted me permission to share the letter and whom I called “M” in the published missive—and my own undocumented grandfather (which did not receive a response). I also started to casually attend meetings of a loose collective of progressive faculty and staff who wanted to organize around the issues we were sure the Trump administration would bring to campus. Someone brought up the word “sanctuary.” Someone else mentioned that maybe a petition was in order. A few of us got together to write and circulate a petition urging our president, Reverend John I. Jenkins, to declare the University of Notre Dame a sanctuary campus.

Notre Dame is not exactly a hotbed of radical thought or protest, but it does have several factors that galvanized students, faculty, staff, and alumni into signing the sanctuary petition: a history of self-identifying as a place where immigrants and their descendants could get an education (they call us the Fighting Irish for a reason), a growing presence of Latinx students—and a well-funded and highly visible Institute for Latino Studies—and a propensity for many to sympathize with what can be loosely labeled as Catholic social teaching, with its emphases on human dignity and social justice. Within just a couple of days of that first mention of a sanctuary petition, we collected more than 4,300 signatures (and deleted a few trolls). By the end of the week, a group of progressive students, including some undocumented students, delivered the petition to Father Jenkins to the cheers of hundreds who had gathered for the occasion. Later, brilliant graduate student Leo Guardado, now assistant professor of theology at Fordham University, and I convinced a somewhat skeptical faculty senate to vote to formally ask Father Jenkins to make the declaration.1 

In the days and weeks that followed, something resembling a national effort began to take shape among activist scholars looking to cope with national politics by affecting local change. Undergraduate students, graduate students, staffpersons, and professors from across the country started various Google Docs to share resources, down to the wording of appeals that we could make to our administrations. Facebook groups formed where folks could vent, commiserate, and offer even more resources. When A. Naomi Paik and I approached the leadership of our professional organization, the American Studies Association (ASA), to ask if we could stage a conversation at the 2016 annual meeting just days before we descended upon Denver, CO, we were surprised that the ASA was able to accommodate us and that hundreds of interested participants showed up with little more than a few social media posts to tell them the conversation was going to happen. The standing-room-only crowd brought both lofty intellectual rationales for campus sanctuaries and brass tacks strategies for organizing on our disparate campuses. Momentum was building.

Back home at Notre Dame, despite a surprising amount of cohesion among disparate factions on campus calling for sanctuary, our administration responded only obliquely to our pleas. In the emotional and intellectual free-fall precipitated by the election results, administrators—like their counterparts across the nation—told us to wait and see. As a way to help the campus cope, Father Jenkins spoke at what the university called an “interfaith prayer service for respect and solidarity.” As part of his remarks, he stated the following:

I want to speak particularly to the undocumented students at Notre Dame. I assure you of our special concern for you at this time. The University will spare no effort to support you, just as we will do for every student at Notre Dame. You accepted our invitation to come to Notre Dame, you are now part of our family, and we will do everything we can to ensure that you complete your education at Notre Dame.2 

For many of us in the audience that evening, this felt like a warm sentiment, but one low on details regarding the administration's plans for undocumented students. Still, I believed, and continue to believe, that Father Jenkins and others running the university mean it when they said they would support students with any level of documentation status. The question of sanctuary remained.


A month after the petition and the prayer service, I ran into a mentor of mine in Notre Dame's Main Building, which by then was festooned with Christmas trees and crèches from around the world. My mentor, a Latino administrator of the type who wears a suit to work every day, was on his way to the president's office to discuss, of all things, how to handle the situation with undocumented students. “I saw your petition,” he told me, “and I would have liked to sign, but there's no way it's going to happen. The word ‘sanctuary’ is just too scary for administrators. But keep pressing—the only way we can make things better for the undocumented students is if there's pressure. Trust me, Jenkins is getting pressure from the other side.” I began to think of sanctuary as the policy that dare not speak its name lest it conjure fantasies among the alumni base of tanks rolling in to quell a hostile campus.

It took until February 2017 to get a final word from Father Jenkins on the S word. In a written response to the faculty senate, he surmised:

While the Senate no doubt recognizes that the practical import of declaring Notre Dame a Sanctuary Campus is limited, the resolution affirms that the term “carries considerable symbolic weight.” I appreciate this point, but am concerned that such a declaration may give our students a false sense of security. The Senate's resolution itself recognizes that while the term “sanctuary” could be understood as a place “free from civil intrusion” the university must comply with subpoenas, court orders and warrants. We do not now, and would not, voluntarily provide information about any student without a clear legal requirement to do so, but we would comply with the law and so cannot promise a campus entirely “free from civil intrusion.” I do not want to appear to make our students a promise on which we cannot deliver.

I am also mindful that a public declaration of our campus as a sanctuary campus could unnecessarily draw attention to these vulnerable students and provoke a reaction from authorities that we otherwise might avoid. As you perhaps know, key members of the Administration have either signaled or said that there are no plans to act aggressively against those with DACA status, and at this point it is perhaps best to simply monitor the situation.3 

Of course, my mentor had been right, and universities are intrinsically risk averse. Father Jenkins's response typifies what happened at most universities around this time: Well-meaning administrators expressed care and concern for undocumented students but stopped short at declaring sanctuary, frequently couching their refusals in the language of protectionism.

We lost the battle to get Notre Dame declared a sanctuary campus, but here's the thing: Sanctuary was just a flashpoint in a much bigger fight, for students like M and dozens of others on our campus and the many thousands on campuses across the United States. In fact, my colleagues and I were not alone in our failure to persuade our administration to declare a campus sanctuary. Only a handful of presidents or chancellors ever declared their campuses to be sanctuaries, despite so much pressure from their students and faculty. This was predictable but dispiriting. It also offered a challenge: How could we maintain focus on the bigger fight for undocumented students while our administrations rejected our sanctuary proposals?

I began to have a more complex relationship to the S word. I no longer cared whether Father Jenkins or anyone else used the word as long as undocumented students were protected. I started to see his point that declaring sanctuary could backfire. I was satisfied to hear that new resources were being put in place to support undocumented students on campus.4 This didn't make me any friends among my progressive colleagues. I found myself arguing on social media over whether change that happens quietly, behind closed doors, under the radar, should be embraced, and whether the ends (supporting undocumented students) can justify the means (closed-door meetings that don't result in public pronouncements of sanctuary). At the same time, I didn't want to be an apologist for an administration that refused to take a bolder stand for current and future undocumented students. As I write this, the Trump administration is detaining undocumented children and isolating them from their parents, with the predictable results of children getting sick and dying (in addition to the trauma of family separation). Elite universities are not to blame for this, exactly, but these times call for bold actions.

Recently, M visited my office hours to talk about her plans to attend medical school. After some bad legal advice and a tumultuous, traumatic experience at a consulate in her home country, she and her family now have legal status, making medical school an even more attainable goal. Getting her paperwork in order was just as important as her stellar grades and extensive extracurricular experience. M might not have graduated from a sanctuary campus, and I am not sure that she ever accessed any resources earmarked for undocumented students, but she proved herself highly resourceful and made it through a system that seems designed to exclude her. When we push for sanctuary and other measures for protecting undocumented students, we need models like M but also a means to imagine a whole new system, one in which undocumented students with fewer resources can access all levels of higher education in the United States. Sanctuary, alas, would have been a good start.


The administration sent the university's general counsel to try to dissuade the senate. She impressed upon the senators that they should not ask Father Jenkins to break the law. It almost worked.
Original emphasis. At the time of this writing, Father Jenkins's full response to the faculty senate can be found here:
Several staffpersons at Notre Dame who consulted with me for this article on the condition of anonymity report that these resources can be most generously described as “hit or miss.” One told me that the most significant thing to come out of the campus sanctuary movement was the symbolic support that students received at the time, suggesting that even in the absence of significant material gains, students benefited from the public display of support. This is a bittersweet sentiment, especially considering the exchange between the faculty senate and Father Jenkins about the symbolic power of sanctuary.