Education | Politics

Universities Get Political

Chicago’s universities respond to Trump’s immigration policies

Jasmin Liang

Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration policies have upended the lives of people around the world, and if his administration follows through on promises made on the campaign trail, the futures of both documented and undocumented immigrants in the U.S. may face additional threats in the years to come. As a result, American universities and their communities, which rely on student talent from all over the world, are among the institutions that stand to lose because of Trump’s policies. In Chicago, many universities and colleges are taking steps to respond to these policies.

The U.S. and much of the world was caught off guard when, on January 27, Trump signed an executive order suspending the entry of refugees into the U.S. and blocking entry for ninety days for citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa—Iraq, Libya, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and Sudan. The order has been temporarily blocked pending further litigation since February 3. While this was perhaps the most consequential action Trump has taken thus far on immigration, he has also announced his intention to axe a key part of Obama’s legacy on immigration, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA. The program allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before turning sixteen to apply for work permits and protects many university students from deportation and imprisonment. Students protected under DACA can renew their deferred action status every two years.

Because programs like DACA and the immigration ban directly impact many university students, many of Chicago’s universities, including some that lie on the South and Southwest Sides, have responded to Trump’s proposed policies on immigration in the wake of his election and eventful, controversial first few weeks in office. While the responses varied from institution to institution, in general Chicago’s universities have reaffirmed that they will uphold their commitments to their students regardless of nationality or citizenship.

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has responded to Trump’s intentions for DACA in a way that exemplifies the general tone of other universities’ responses. On December 13, 2016, Chancellor Michael D. Amiridis of UIC, along with several other administrators, sent a campus communication to the school’s students and staff assuring them that the university is “dedicated to the education of all of its students regardless of citizenship, immigration status, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion, or national origin.” The letter goes on to call attention to the needs of UIC’s undocumented and Muslim students and affirm UIC’s commitment to upholding DACA.

“UIC will continue to assist and advocate for our undocumented students and those who have benefitted from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program so they have access to full educational opportunities,” the communication reads.

The letter also mentions sanctuary campuses (universities where undocumented people can seek refuge from federal immigration authorities) and argues that the discourse around them is fundamentally about guaranteeing students of all backgrounds access to university education. However, University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen announced in December in a letter signed by Amiridis and the other two University of Illinois school chancellors that the system’s three campuses would not become sanctuaries, citing potential conflicts with state and federal law.

This has frustrated some campus activists like Ryan Rock, an alumnus and co-founder of Student and Graduate Activists (SAGA), a UIC activist group that has tackled a number of issues over the years and recently spearheaded a “Dump Trump” campaign aimed at resisting Trump’s federal policies. SAGA often cooperates with organizations like The People’s Lobby and Fearless Undocumented Alliance (FUA). He says that without DACA, undocumented students at UIC could be at risk of deportation.

Since the January 27 executive order, however, SAGA’s concerns, and its ambitions, have expanded while UIC’s administration has been quieter than those of other universities. According to Sherri McGinnis Gonzalez, the Senior Executive Director of Public Affairs at UIC, 184 students, faculty, staff, and affiliated scholars there hail from the seven affected countries, but the university has not sent out any additional letters to its students and faculty since the ban went into effect (though the University of Illinois system, like many universities, did urge students from the seven countries to avoid traveling abroad for the time being).

On the student side, meanwhile, Rock says SAGA has shifted its strategies considerably in the last several weeks, seeking to expand its role following the immigration ban.

“We are starting to change the scale at which we are trying to operate,” Rock explains. “We are currently in the process of trying to get affiliate chapters started at other campuses in the Chicagoland area.” At the moment, SAGA is preparing to hold a three-day “Weekend of Action” event in the city to build momentum in the campaign to get the University of Illinois to adopt sanctuary campus policies at all of its campuses.

The City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) also affirmed campus protections for students after Trump’s election, adopting a formal resolution in December to declare CCC campuses “welcoming campuses” (though again stopping short of using the phrase “sanctuary campus”). In the wake of the immigration ban, the school has offered a number of information and resource sessions for students, and has also sent emails to students familiarizing them with resources provided by CCC for legal aid and mental well-being.

As the University of Illinois is a public university system that receives taxpayer money, it would seem that it would be its duty to support students from tax-paying families regardless of their national origin. However, the system receives a significant portion of its funding from the federal government; in the fiscal year 2015, 13.3 percent of the system’s budget came from federal grants and appropriations. Trump has already threatened to pull federal funding from the University of California, Berkeley because of the university’s handling of violent protests surrounding a speaking event by hate-mongering right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos earlier this month. While that incident was not directly related to immigration, the precedent means that UIC and other Illinois public universities have grounds to be cautious about taking political stances that diverge from Trump’s.

Several private universities in Chicago have also made statements supporting DACA, but in contrast to UIC’s relative silence on the immigration ban, some, including the University of Chicago, Roosevelt University, DePaul University, and Columbia College of Chicago, have explicitly denounced the ban and offered resources for students from the affected countries. As independent institutions, these universities have more leeway than UIC and other public universities when it comes to making political statements, and many have taken advantage of that. In the week following Trump’s election, Illinois Institute of Technology student-activist Luis Gomez called out Rahm Emanuel in a public meeting for not expanding support for immigrants, demanding he “stop categorizing and separating the undocumented community between deplorable and DREAMers.” Gomez also made a speech at a protest on the UofC’s campus calling for Chicago-area universities, UofC and IIT in particular, to support and protect not only students covered by DACA but all undocumented students.

The University of Chicago and Roosevelt University have been particularly public about responding to Trump’s executive orders and policy proposals. The UofC College Council, a division of student government, has encouraged the school to ensure that students in the DACA program will continue to be protected and supported. In January, the council voted in support of creating an additional council to deal with the effects of challenges to DACA. Since the election, a group of administrators has been meeting regularly to identify resources for students potentially affected by Trump’s actions on DACA, as well as meeting with students who rely on the program to plan forums and support groups designed to help them protect their federal benefits. Roosevelt University president Ali Malekzadeh took a similar approach, creating a “committee on Sanctuary Campus issues.”

In addition to  concrete actions related to concerns about DACA, the UofC and Roosevelt have joined other private universities, including DePaul and Columbia College, in reaffirming their commitment to an inclusive and diverse student body. “We recognize that many undocumented and DACA students are experiencing significant financial uncertainty during this time, and we will help to address these concerns…The University will continue to meet one hundred percent of the demonstrated financial aid need of all undergraduate students, regardless of immigration status,” reads a January 4 campus-wide UofC letter that pledged support for undocumented students and the DACA program. The presidents of each of these universities, with the exception of DePaul, also joined more than 400 other university and college presidents in signing a letter in support of DACA. Each university issued statements to their campus communities addressing the immigration ban as well, denouncing it either explicitly or implicitly; the heads of DePaul, Roosevelt, and Columbia issued the most strongly worded responses to the policy.

Three days after the January 27 executive order, UofC president Robert J. Zimmer and provost Daniel Diermeier took the additional step of sending a letter to Trump himself urging a reconsideration of the executive order’s broad travel ban. The university has also joined a group of nearly twenty research universities from around the country in filing an amicus brief in a federal district court’s review of the order, opposing the order and arguing that it creates “significant hardship” for the universities’ international students and faculty.

As at UIC, some members of private campus communities are still demanding their universities do more. In December, 386 members of the UofC faculty signed a letter to Zimmer urging the school to craft more consequential policies to protect students and staff. “We believe it is necessary to take concrete steps in order to live up to the administration’s recent efforts to assess and improve the campus climate with respect to issues of difference, diversity, and discrimination,” the letter reads. The letter was cited in the UofC’s January 4 letter identifying steps the university was taking to support students who might be affected by changes to DACA.

Many members of UofC’s student body feel that the administration’s actions have been insufficient or insubstantial. Multiple opinion pieces in UofC’s student newspaper, The Maroon, called on the University to take a more definite stance, and make more substantial commitments, to protecting immigrants and refugees. One op-ed criticized the University for only valuing refugees because they contribute to (in Zimmer’s words) “the flow of talented scholars and students,” and for limiting its “vision of the ideal immigrant…to the kind of person who will make us look good.” Another op-ed called UofC’s response to Trump’s executive order “lukewarm” and exhorted the administration “to take bold and decisive action instead of sending out letters that are little more than a token gesture of support.” One graduate student doing fieldwork in her home country of Iran was apparently forgotten by the UofC, which issued a declaration after the executive order saying that it was not aware of any students abroad who would be affected by the ban. The student is now uncertain whether she will be able to return to the U.S.

While DACA and immigration issues top the list, they are not the only concerns on the minds of students, administrators, and activists as the Trump administration begins to pursue its agenda; many also have concerns about the ability of students to express themselves and protest federal policy on police reform and climate change. Columbia president Kwang-Wu Kim made his university’s commitment to protecting its students clear in a letter sent to students and staff on November 14: “We will protect our students, their rights, and their well-being. This is our common moral obligation…We will not accept discrimination against any group or individual within our community nor will we permit expressions of intolerance of differing views or beliefs.”

Activists like Rock hope UIC and other universities will also make protecting their students a priority. “Myself and, I believe, many of the members at SAGA, don’t believe that standing on principle has a deadline,” he says. “After the implementation of the initial executive order [on immigration], it should have become evident to the board of trustees that they really can’t be agnostic about a travel ban and that they really need to adopt sanctuary campus policies. Clearly at this point that message has not yet gotten across.”

In the coming months, Rock says SAGA and other organization will have to continue to respond to events at the federal level on a case-by-case basis. He hopes the universities whose students SAGA and its allies represent will join the fight themselves as well. Rock believes universities across the board, public and private, must develop the will to enact bold policy positions in light of Trump’s administration. With a little prodding, he hopes this goal is close at hand.

This article has been updated from the version that appears in print both to reflect the University of Illinois at Chicago’s announcement that its three campuses will not become sanctuaries and to reflect student criticisms of the University of Chicago’s public statements about supporting immigrants and refugees.

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Thoughts on “Universities Get Political”

  1. This article was so offensive that I could not finish reading it. For SSW, which is only nominally unaffiliated with the UofC, to bash UIC’s response to the immigration ban, while upholding the UofC’s lip service to DACA students (who will tell you themselves the the UofC has done a terrible job upholding their interests) is totally indefensible. This article should not have been published as anythong other than an editorial, as there’s very little journalistic work or actual substance to the claims made.

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