Higher education

Iowa universities unite to safeguard immigrant students

Iowa, Iowa State among those making the case to continue DACA

University of Iowa students Samiksha Annira and Brad Pector, showed Friday at the Iowa Memorial Union, are part of an ef
University of Iowa students Samiksha Annira and Brad Pector, showed Friday at the Iowa Memorial Union, are part of an effort by the Iowa Action and Student Engagement coalition to call for the university to declare itself a “sanctuary” campus — a status that is neither clearly defined nor enforceable by the American legal system. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

A group of 25 University of Iowa student associations recently asked campus President Bruce Harreld to denounce any policies created under a President Donald Trump administration that might be intimidating to minority and international college students.

“The University of Iowa climate has become increasingly intolerant of these populations,” read the letter sent to Harreld’s office Nov. 25. “We need you to promise to keep these communities safe under this sort of administration.”

Similarly, a UI student-led Iowa Action and Student Engagement coalition called Nov. 18 for the university to establish itself as a “sanctuary.” Students at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa have issued similar calls to campus leaders.

“We’re just looking for a public statement that Bruce Harreld, under any circumstances, will use his power to protect the university students,” said Brad Pector, a student and member of the campus coalition calling for sanctuary status.

He also plans to petition Iowa City to reconsider declaring itself a sanctuary city for immigrants, which it had decided years ago against.

While it’s not at all clear that the Trump administration has its immigrant approach set on college students — and questions swirl whether universities have much authority to declare themselves sanctuaries anyway — Iowa universities are not alone.

Students on campuses across the country since Trump’s election have asked their institutions to claim sanctuary status for international students and those registered with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.


President Barack Obama authorized DACA by executive action to grant temporary relief from the possibility of deportation and two-year renewable work permits for certain young people who were brought here illegally as children.

Trump, who campaigned with a hard line against illegal immigration, has said he would end DACA. His pick for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, also opposes DACA and has called it “mass backdoor amnesty.”

Although those covered by DACA are on a federal registry, universities are not told as students register which ones hold that status. As such, it’s not known how many DACA students are on Iowa campuses.

Earlier this month, Pomona (Calif.) College President David Oxtoby crafted a statement in support of DACA and “undocumented immigrant students.”

As of Friday, more than 400 college and university presidents had signed the statement — including UI’s Harreld, ISU President Steven Leath and the presidents of several Iowa private universities and colleges including Coe, Mount Mercy, Cornell, Drake, Wartburg and Grinnell.

Oxtoby wrote that since DACA’s start in 2012, “We have seen critical benefits of this program for our students, and the highly positive impacts on our institutions and communities.” According to the statement, such students have gone on to pursue promising careers or advanced degrees.

Some colleges have taken the extra step of declaring themselves a “sanctuary” — like Reed College in Portland, Ore., and Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

Others have pledged to take action aligning with sanctuary principles, including California State University, where leaders have vowed not to help deport undocumented students.


UI’s Harreld has not responded directly to student calls for sanctuary status. UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck told The Gazette: “The university does not set nor enforce immigration policy. That is the purview of the federal government.”

“We are committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment for our campus community,” she added.

ISU issued a statement in November acknowledging international and undocumented students had concerns.

“We recognize this is causing fear and anxiety among many people on campus, and our top priority is the safety and well-being of everyone in the Iowa State community,” according to the message. “We will continue to offer support and resources to anyone who is concerned about their status at Iowa State.”

But, the statement said, “President Leath and university administration do not have the authority to declare the campus a sanctuary and must operate within the policies and guidelines established by the Board of Regents.”

‘An empty promise’

National experts on the topic agree — noting “sanctuary” is not a concept with a clear meaning in American law.

“I don’t know exactly what it means,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “No college or university is going to prohibit duly-appointed law enforcement officials access to their campus. They may not go out of their way to help them, but it’s not like they’re going to wall off the campus and say, ‘You can’t enter here.’”

Hartle said the promise of sanctuary rings empty for the students most at risk, but campus leaders do have tools.


“Students who might be affected need someone to talk to — they might need legal or immigration advice that they can rely on without having to go to the government,” he said. “So I think an awful lot of institutions are looking for ways that they … can provide such advice and counsel.”

And, Hartle said, it’s not entirely clear immigrant students would face a problem anyway. Trump has said his initial focus would be undocumented immigrants who are criminals.

“It might well be a very long time before the Trump administration gets to the students in the DACA database,” Hartle said.

In fact, Michael Olivas — interim president of the University of Houston-Downtown and an expert on higher education and immigration law — said no campus ever has been raided for unauthorized or undocumented students or employees. And he doesn’t see that changing.

The students are working, paying into Social Security and buying from local businesses.

“I don’t think the new administration would un-ring the bell,” Olivas said. “They might very well choose not to extend it or not to renew it or not to issue any new ones. But 800,000 kids now have DACA. What we ought to be concerned about is how to make these kids permanent residents.”

Olivas said calls for campus sanctuaries vex him — especially when students who could be most affected are joining in potentially illegal protests that could give authorities reason to deport them. Rather, he said, they should engage in lawful advocacy.

“Telling them, ‘Hey, if you stay on campus, we’ll provide sanctuary,’ who’s got authority to do that?” Olivas asked. “It’s an empty promise, and I think that’s cruel and doesn’t respect these students. These students know better.”


Mohamed Abufalgha, 22, is a third-year ISU student from Libya. He’s on a student visa to study aerospace engineering and doesn’t feel at risk for deportation, although he has friends who do.


Being Muslim, Abufalgha said he’s more immediately concerned about becoming the target of hate speech and violence.

But while deportation doesn’t pose a pressing threat in his mind, Abufalgha and some friends have discussed concerns about heading home for the winter break. He, for one, is not planning to take the risk.

“Some fear the ban on Muslims might actually happen,” he said. “They are concerned — would they be able to come back to finish?”

On the UI campus, junior Monzer Shakally, 20, said he’s here legally and feels relatively secure in his status. But, as a native Syrian who came to Iowa in high school as a refugee seeking asylum, he said he’s still awaiting word from the courts — and that has him worried.

If Shakally does get asylum, he can apply for a green card and move toward citizenship.

After more than a year’s wait, Shakally said he’s hoping to get asylum before the new administration starts.

“I’m hoping this is a good time of the year for me, and I hear something,” he said. “But the process is so secret. And I just don’t know.”

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