A letter recently delivered to UNLV President Len Jessup from a contingent of 50 students listed four demands and a request to meet by the close of the semester Dec. 17.
At the top of that list: A call for UNLV to be declared a sanctuary campus, one that ensures protections for undocumented immigrant students who may fear deportation.
Jessup agreed to meet with students this week, and the sanctuary issues they’ll address mirror a nationwide trend that has reached Nevada and manifested itself in letters, petitions and statements across state campuses for several days.
Indeed, the term “sanctuary campus” is a new one, with myriad interpretations of what it means.
“It’s a very new thing for everybody,” said Dr. Rainier Spencer, interim director of diversity initiatives at UNLV. “People are trying to understand the language. Today there is not a clear definition for it, and one has to be careful about committing to something like that.”
Spencer added that, since the term is only months old, and because it has no legal meaning, some people see difficulties with it.
“You have to be careful in knowing what you’re setting yourself up for,” Spencer said. “It seems to have a different meaning each time.”
For David Hughes, president of the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers faculty union at Rutgers University, however, the meaning is clear.
Hughes said universities that make “unambiguous statements of non-cooperation” with regard to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security, are sanctuaries.
“We’re not looking for universities to break the law, but to exercise the maximum latitude they can in dragging their feet to complying with the executive branch,” Hughes said.
Hughes said colleges and universities are following the lead of various cities, such as New York and Philadelphia, in asking for this designation.
Locally, Allen Lichtenstein, a First Amendment lawyer in Las Vegas, said the idea of a sanctuary campus, to some extent, is “more symbolic than instrumental,” as universities in Nevada do not ask students to provide their immigration status on college applications.
“Even if a university says, ‘We’re not going to cooperate with ICE,’ I don’t think they have the ability from preventing federal agents from entering the campus,” Lichtenstein said.
Beverly Rogers of the Rogers Foundation, who sent letters to UNLV, the College of Southern Nevada, Nevada State College and the Clark County School District calling for sanctuary campuses, said, like Hughes, she’s looking for a public declaration.
“A public declaration that the campus is a safe space where they can come here, learn, and concentrate on what they’re doing — helping them focus on their education,” she said.
NSC President Bart Patterson said he sees it as “constantly evolving issue” and expects dialogue to continue not only on his campus, but nationally.
“The term doesn’t really have a legal definition, which is creating confusion about what it means and what it can do,” Patterson said. “I think this is why you’ve seen colleges make different responses to these types of requests.”
Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, is one lawmaker who is opposed to the idea of sanctuary campuses.
“I think this is yet another example of how out of touch with reality some ‘higher’ ed folks are,” Hansen said in response to the Rogers Foundation voicing its support.
“We already are having difficulty funding our own citizens and legal immigrants and this guy (the Rogers Foundation) wants to defy federal law?” Hansen continued. “To what end? Seems we just had an election with illegal immigration a top issue. And guess which side won? Higher ed is a zero sum game; every seat occupied by an illegal should and could be occupied by a citizen or legal immigrant. Do any of these rocket scientists ever consider the indirect consequences to others when they get on their moral high horse?”
UNLV and University of Nevada, Reno students delivered petitions to their respective presidents this week; they differed only slightly in wording and in requests.
UNR’s petition, which had more than 1,000 signatures and was received in person by President Marc Johnson on Thursday, asked the university to create an Undocumented Student Coordinator position to assist students and their families. Johnson plans to meet with student leaders Wednesday.
“Sanctuary campus looks different for different campuses and different universities,” said Jackeline Duron, president of UNR’s Latinx Student Advisory Board. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to it.”
Both petitions mirrored the threshold that Hughes’ outlined, with UNLV’s asking the university to create a policy “to not cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities regarding deportations or immigration raids and assure the entire UNLV community that campus police will not engage in helping the federal government with deportations of inquiring as to the immigration status of students.”
While Johnson and Jessup did not mention sanctuary campuses directly, both have released statements in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. CSN President Michael Richards last week added his name to the letter that more than 500 presidents have signed, asking for the program to be continued. Patterson has also signed.
“It seems like there’s a commitment from the presidents to the students to learn in an environment free of fear,” said Yvanna Cancela, who was appointed this week to the state Senate. “I’m really proud of them to make that commitment to their students.”
This week, Cancela went a step beyond both sanctuary campuses and sanctuary cities in expressing her intent to make Nevada a “sanctuary state.”
“The idea is to make sure we continue to enforce measures that have been in place, but, as the Trump administration comes in and aims to fulfill promises of mass deportations, that we are prepared to keep Nevadans safe from any overreaches that threaten to tear families apart,” she said.