Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

No church in the wild: the politics of the sanctuary campus

By Joel Sati

“Lies on the lips of a priest/Thanksgiving disguised as a feast”  

— Jay-Z and Kanye West, No Church in The Wild (from Watch the Throne)

It has been two weeks since the election that saw Donald Trump elected president of the United States. And here at Berkeley, I and many undocumented scholars and activists are strategizing on steps to protect ourselves and our communities from the implications of what happened November 8.

Part of that strategy is demanding that Berkeley protect undocumented students, or, in the popular parlance, be a “sanctuary campus” (petition here - UPDATE: Chancellor Dirks has released a statement on undocumented students on 11/23). So far, the definition of the “sanctuary campus” is, at its core, a negative one; by that I mean that we demand campuses not aid ICE in deportation efforts, for example. Though this is an important ask, pushing for sanctuary campuses across the nation presents a clear imperative to define what a “sanctuary” means. And as we make this push, it is clear that the terms under which sanctuary campuses around the country exist should be unequivocally set out and deeply examined.

Thus, I argue that campuses cannot merely affirm the status quo; neither can we as undocumented persons nor our accomplices let that happen. For millions of undocumented persons, their lives depend on it.

At the time of this writing, there is one university that has formally declared itself a sanctuary campus: Wesleyan. Wesleyan has placed itself at the forefront of movements at other elite private schools for their presidents to declare sanctuary status. Public institutions like Berkeley (and my alma mater, CUNY) find themselves in a much different environment. Private schools have billions of dollars of their own money to not only mitigate loss of federal funding, but to also put forth positive services for its undocumented community members. Public universities, on the other hand, are beholden to the federal government for funding as well as the state whose population it educates. Further, given the incoming administration has promised to cut funding to sanctuary cities, it is not outside of the imagination to believe that the same will happen to public universities.

There are also some apparent demographic differences between public and private schools. Much more so than private schools, public schools like the University of California, Cal State (which has pledged noncooperation but rejected the term “sanctuary campus”) and the community college system not only teach more students, but also educate adult learners and non-traditional students, many of whom are also undocumented and/or have criminal records.

Thus, in framing concrete asks to universities, those pushing public institutions to be sanctuary cities must include those who do not fit into the “good immigrant” narrative. President-elect Trump has pledged to get rid of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) when he takes office. And once he has done that, many people who have used it to secure in-state tuition, employment and research opportunities will lose these opportunities. In pushing for sanctuary campuses, substantive asks have centered on pushing institutions to mitigate the effects of DACA. But, absent an analysis of the tropes that have hampered the immigration movement to date, the movement for sanctuary campuses will not live up to its potential at best, and undermine the movement again at worst.

But there needs to be further exploration of the term “sanctuary” and the politics imbued in it. Here is what I mean: In February 2016, I wrote an article whose central idea I want to explore it in this article — that of meta-endorsement. I used this term in offering a critique of DREAMers endorsing candidates in the Democratic primaries for president of the United States. The argument’s central thrust is that despite the appearance of influential immigrant activists using their clout to bolster a candidate, it was actually the establishment that chose the kinds of immigrants that have the cachet of endorsing a presidential candidate.

I contend that meta-endorsement also could occur in the politics of sanctuary campuses; here’s how. Despite making highly publicized pushes, if we center positive asks through the frame of mitigating the effects of losing DACA for example, the campus may acquiesce. However, such an approach risks being so close to the status quo that the university does not stand to lose much, if at all. If the goal of protecting undocumented students is focused on DACA or sees itself through that frame, we stand to reify the tropes of the DREAMer and the good immigrant and further marginalize and erase the experiences of non-traditional students in the higher education setting. Further yet, undocumented people who are not pursuing education are further marginalized, playing into Trump’s promises to deport 3 million undocumented “criminal” persons. Those who are steeped into the sanctuary campus struggle must contend with issues of race and criminality; I’ll get into all of that in another piece.

And this brings me to my final point: The fight for sanctuary campuses is but one part of a very complex struggle for the rights of undocumented persons more generally. Such a movement for sanctuary campuses must be aware of its role in reifying existing dangerous tropes of the deserving immigrant/DREAMer and how easy that trope can too easily transmute to the traditional, young adult undergraduate. The sanctuary campus should also have, as its mission, a deep engagement with the community of which it is a part; this, to me, means the protection of workers and community members with mixed-status families as well.

Sanctuary campuses must have a front-facing quality to them; they must engage with the world that they claim to prepare us for. That being said, there is a danger that the whole exercise could be self-congratulatory absent a deep political analysis and a sustained grassroots push. Merely protecting a subset of the undocumented population, without a critical engagement of the political situation that brought us to this point, will not get undocumented persons anywhere but in grave danger.

Though Berkeley may claim to protect undocumented persons, it is still firmly attached to this world. Fail to contend with the world, and there is no sanctuary to be found.

UPDATE at 11/23 2:58 PM: Typographical errors.