By Shanna O’Mara
Citizens from around the world living in America didn’t go to work or school on Feb. 16, A Day Without Immigrants, attempting to prove their worth to a government now threatening their place.
In the months following the election and weeks following President Donald Trump’s executive order, which restricts the entrance of people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen into the United States, many universities have assured students of their place on campus and safety at each school.
In response to the Jan. 27 decision, a Washington state federal judge temporarily blocked the president’s order in the face of constitutional challenges, but Trump is still pushing for the travel ban.
While some administrators have deemed their schools sanctuary campuses, others have avoided the title.
In a Feb. 15 letter to the Rider community, university President Gregory Dell’Omo did not label Rider a sanctuary campus.
Although Dell’Omo said he will not define the school by this term, he said his decision will not sacrifice the safety or security of anyone in the university community.
“I think it’s important to understand that that term means different things to different people,” he said in a Feb. 16 interview. “Some schools that have declared themselves sanctuary campuses have taken the position that if any request comes for information about a student, regardless of whether or not there’s a warrant or subpoena for that, they’re not going to provide that information. That is not the position that Rider University is taking. We will respect and adhere to the laws that require us to maintain the privacy of our students. We will adhere to any legal request.”
While Dell’Omo said Rider does not currently have any students from the seven countries listed in Trump’s order, junior biochemistry major Warveen Othman looks to the future when debating whether or not she agrees with Dell’Omo’s decision. As president of the Muslim Student Association, Othman has a distinct perspective on the issue.
“If there were students from those countries applying in the future, Rider should become a sanctuary campus for those students,” she said. “Especially because Rider is a private institution and does not receive much funding from the government, the school would not have that fear of losing as much money for providing a safe place for those students.”
Wesleyan, one of the first schools in the country to call itself a sanctuary campus, published a clause in The Wesleyan Argus that states: “The university’s statements also hedge against a potential federal lawsuit or seizure of funds, of which the federal government provides around $200 million to the university each year.”
Universities who adopt this title are subject to loss of federal funding which may contribute to students’ financial aid. Dell’Omo thought of this fact when drafting his email to the Rider community.
“If there’s a potential, a threat, for losing financial aid for our students, that has to be one of the considerations we take into account,” he said.
In his letter to staff and students, Dell’Omo mentioned “existing policies designed to protect members of the university community,” including adherence to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects the privacy of students’ educational records.
According to Dell’Omo, schools that declare they will not work with immigration agents despite legal pressure to do so may be setting an unfair precedent.
“If you declare yourself a sanctuary campus, are you creating a promise or an expectation that you really can’t live up to?” he questioned. “Are you creating a false expectation of a degree of protection that simply wouldn’t be appropriate?”
Other schools in the area, including Rutgers and Princeton, have made similar claims that while these campuses are a safe haven for international and local students alike, they will not be considered sanctuaries because of where this term falls on the legal spectrum.
Still, some university community members are outraged by their respective president’s decisions to withhold this title.
On Dec. 6, Rutgers President Robert Barchi told the community that the school has “a large undocumented student population here that we support and we encourage,” calling the university a “safe haven for our immigrant students.”
In response, student protesters demanded their leaders declare the campuses a sanctuary, as Columbia and Wesleyan did on Nov. 20. Several cities are also considered sanctuaries including Newark, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Oakland, California.
“I feel like we’re doing a disservice to the town and acting hypocritical since we put so much emphasis on diversity,” said Megan Kenny, a junior speech pathology major at Rutgers.
Rider joined the list of 600 schools who signed off on a Feb. 3 letter to the new Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly which promoted a “global perspective on education,” according to Dell’Omo.
He said university presidents are “encouraging that there be a balanced approach to maintaining security but, at the same time, strongly endorsing international education whether it be faculty and students here or our students going abroad.”
While Othman is grateful for the sentiment of the letter, she wishes the assurance had come sooner.
“The president’s message was greatly appreciated,” she said. “Maybe it could have come out sooner, but I understand that Rider is a little occupied with other concerns. Nonetheless, his message was very comforting in assuring that Rider does care.”
Dell’Omo said he had this goal in mind when sending the letter out on Feb. 15. He wanted to recognize the fears and concerns plaguing the Rider community since the news of Trump’s executive order broke.
“There’s so much uncertainty,” Dell’Omo said, referring to the question of whether or not Trump’s administration will maintain Former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. In June 2012, the Obama administration declared that undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minors may receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit.
“A new administration comes in and there’s talk about whether or not they maintain the DACA arrangement which would allow undocumented students to enroll in college and universities,” Dell’Omo said. “Number two, with the executive order of the travel ban and then the pulling back of that after it, the legality of it was challenged. It has created a lot of confusion and a lot of uncertainty. I felt it was important to communicate to our university community that we’re aware of these things. We’re monitoring them.”
Dell’Omo said he also aimed to inform people of the resources, such as the Counseling Center, available on campus for students and faculty who are confused or upset about these recent issues.
“We want to just let people know that we’re aware of the uncertainty and want to be a source of information for people,” he said.
The counseling center is located in Zoerner House on Lawrenceville Road between the main and south entrances. The Westminster Counseling Office is located on the third floor of Williamson Hall. These facilities are open to students Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Additional reporting by Lauren Lavelle.