This essay examines the campus sanctuary movement that launched in response to the 2016 US presidential election. It focuses on the case of my employer to illuminate the broader context of the campus sanctuary movement's nationwide emergence, including the neoliberal evisceration of higher education and right-wing attacks on intellectual freedom and demands for social justice. Recognizing that the institution will not save us, sanctuary organizers not only demand that institutions use their resources for the public good, but they also work beyond the confines of institutions to build the resources that we need through community-based organizations.
The university has long stood as and remains a key site of struggle—materially as an ostensibly state-funded institution serving the public good and ideologically as a site that fosters both critical thinking and social protests challenging existing regimes of power. In the United States, a structural groundwork shared across campuses underpins current battles over the university—both the neoliberal evisceration of higher education and the open embrace of white supremacy and fascist ideologies, so clearly displayed at the Confederate rally at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville that killed counterprotester Heather Heyer in August 2017. With an executive branch elected, not in spite of, but because of, its open racism, xenophobia, misogynist patriarchy, classism, and so on, we have seen attacks on incredibly broad swaths of people. Intellectuals count themselves among the targeted. Right-wing organizations create watch lists of “liberal” professors and encourage students to report their teachers and record their lectures; legislators propose bills demanding ideological balance in the hiring of faculty; far-right organizations coordinate campaigns of harassment (including death threats) and forced removals of professors who criticize white supremacy.1 Against such campaigns, students, faculty, and community members have been mobilizing, defending themselves and each other while demanding that universities do the same. In what follows, I examine the campus sanctuary movement, focusing on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).
Following the November 2016 US presidential election, faculty and students across the country petitioned their administrations to declare their campuses as sanctuaries that would defend their students and communities from the state and extra-state violence promised by the president-elect and already escalating among his supporters.2 At UIUC, a small group of ethnic and gender studies faculty wrote an open letter to challenge this “vitriolic social environment and coming policy changes” and to demand that the university administration provide sanctuary, particularly for immigrants with undocumented or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status.3 The university system president refuted our (and our sister campuses') petitions, stating: “As a public institution of higher education, we must uphold state and federal laws. We cannot declare our campuses as sanctuaries, as the concept is not well specified and may actually jeopardize our institution. However, we will continue to do everything we can within the law to reassure, support, and protect our students.”4 While faculty and students viewed the open meaning of sanctuary as offering an opportunity to define it in ways appropriate to our context, the university took the most defensive position, fearing that a formal declaration of sanctuary would draw the attention of anti-immigrant agitators, appear to favor one group of students over others, and imperil state funding. Instead, while acknowledging undocumented students as part of the campus community, the university president sought to treat them as any other student, regardless of their particular circumstances of targeting by the state and xenophobic community members, including fellow students, who organized chalkings of university sidewalks with phrases such as “Build a wall” and “Deport them all,” threatened Latinx students with reporting them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and invited ICE public relations officers to campus.
At the time of the university president's response, the state of Illinois had not passed a budget in two years, as Governor Bruce Rauner refused to work with the Democrat-led legislature, but instead held funding hostage in his efforts to dismantle public unions and divest from public pensions and health care. For two years, no state-funded agency, including public universities and colleges, received any state resources, throwing many into a manufactured austerity crisis.5 While these politically driven problems of austerity have been particularly acute in Illinois, they are not new, but have been developing for the past four decades at state, national, and global scales. Depriving higher education of public financial resources aligns with the neoliberal decimation of the welfare state overall. This deprivation of public funding has, over time, helped transform the university, moving it away from its stated goals of knowledge production and education for the public good, and compelling it to adopt market principles for its survival. And this neoliberal gutting then serves to discipline student and faculty demands for equitable resources and democratic governance—articulated, for example, in the sanctuary campus movement. As Roderick A. Ferguson argues of student movements: “Neoliberalism is not simply an economic and political formation involving governments and businesses but an ideological project meant to tear down the web of insurgencies that activists have been demanding.”6
The continued challenges brought by such insurgent activists have pushed the university administration to clarify its position and act according to its professed principles. Several months after refusing the campus sanctuary petitions, the university president committed to many of the demands outlined in our petitions, including protecting student privacy, not inquiring about or keeping records of students' documentation status, and not detaining immigrant students on behalf of ICE. Even these basic assurances, which required no resources and risked little to the institution, still importantly communicated that the university understood it had to deal with the demands of its constituents and the coming problems posed by the new executive branch. These professed commitments, however, remain insufficient, as seen in the torrent of executive policies targeting people of color, immigrants, refugees, women, and Indigenous communities, among others. Confronted with these (predicted) policies, the university has had to reiterate its commitment to its students, faculty, and staff. For example, the UIUC chancellor and interim provost refuted the “Muslim ban” stating: “The marginalization of international faculty, students, staff, and visiting scholars diminishes us all. This we will not abide.”7
The actions of the university contravene these statements. In each of these mass communications, university administrators also reiterate their commitment to law-and-order principles. Even with the termination of DACA, which we predicted in our first petition letter, the president asserted: “As a public university system, we will always comply with all federal, state and local laws.”8 Essentially, the university commits to adhering to laws and policies set by the very state that targets our students and community members under these conditions. There is no resolution to this paradox. The university cannot bind itself to both the state and its community members.
This contradiction becomes especially clear in the university's own campus police and investments in federal law enforcement programs. Although the university administration has instructed campus police not to inquire about or make arrests based on immigration status alone and to refuse cooperation with ICE (“unless required by law”), students of color consistently report being patrolled by campus police more rigorously than other students. In the fall 2016, for example, campus police disrupted an African American studies class to interrogate two Black students about a stolen mobile phone, a clear example of law-and-order principles overriding the educational mission of the classroom.9 Even if they do not actively target immigrant students, their aggressive policing of students of color creates contact with law enforcement, which can ultimately lead to their arrest and, for immigrant students, their potential deportation.10
Furthermore, while verbally opposing the “Muslim ban,” the University of Illinois has also sought and accepted grants from the Department of Homeland Security for the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, which encourages community members to report persons suspected of “radicalization,” the signs of which include praying five times a day or growing a beard. CVE seeks to transform teachers, religious and community leaders, and ordinary people into informants for the federal government, targeting Muslim people in particular. At the first public meeting regarding CVE at the University of Illinois, Chicago, local police officers arrested two community organizers for raising questions and contesting the narrative of CVE as a community-driven program. They instead emphasized that CVE racially profiles Muslims.11
These contradictions between professed principles and actions lay bare the limits of seeking support from institutions. Universities have consistently treated students and faculty as problems to be managed rather than members of their community, indeed their putative reason for being at all.12 Furthermore, in the neoliberal university, the missions of research, teaching, and serving the public good have withered under pressures to produce income, train “instructional units” (UIUC's term for students) for the workforce, and serve the interests of donors. Recognizing that the institution will not save us, sanctuary organizers not only demand that institutions use their resources for the public good, but that they also work beyond the confines of institutions to build the resources we need through community-based organizations. At UIUC, we have organized trainings for cop watching, bystander intervention, and self-defense against hate crimes, and we continue to plan additional trainings for legal observation of student and community protests (to defend ourselves from criminalization or expulsion). We have also garnered external financial support for research and community symposia on issues of immigration in Central Illinois. Threaded through this organizing is a commitment to sanctuary for all persons, everywhere. We understand that a vision of sanctuary that excludes any targeted person—whether by race, Indigeneity, class, gender identity, sexuality, criminal history, or immigration status—is no sanctuary at all. Against the tremendous forces coming for us from state and non-state actors, building sanctuary will take all of us together.