Oberlin Blogs

What Does Sanctuary Mean Here?

March 29, 2021

Minerva Macarrulla ’23

On November 16th, 2016, students from Obies for Undocumented Inclusion (OUI) led a Sanctuary Campus March. The event was coordinated with over 80 other colleges and universities across the country in an effort to demand that the leaders of these institutions "promise to develop policies that will keep undocumented students… safe from intimidation, investigation, and deportation." The march came at a critical time for the undocumented rights movement: Trump was aiming to cancel all federal funding to sanctuary cities, deport over two million people, and cancel crucial executive actions like DACA that had been issued by the Obama administration. The march also came two days after OUI, in collaboration with five faculty and staff members, had delivered a petition with 2,400 signatures to the then-president of Oberlin College, Marvin Krislov. The petition urged meaningful institutional change for undocumented students. During the march, one of OUI's leaders stated, "We are gathered to make sure that President Krislov responds promptly and publicly with a real solution."

On December 1st, 2016, President Krislov emailed a response to the campus community. Reading the PDF version of it that former OUI board members have passed down to me, I am reminded that Oberlin is a blue dot in a red state. It comes up often in OUI that the wording of that email never explicitly stated that Oberlin would be a sanctuary campus, nor is there any loud, emboldened advertising of Oberlin as such. But context is everything. Conversations in OUI about the label "sanctuary campus" often circle back to one point: Oberlin publicly and loudly declaring itself a sanctuary campus could attract backlash from anti-immigrant neighbors, endangering the very people that "sanctuary" is meant to protect. The sanctuary status of Oberlin College can come off as less clear or less official than other sanctuary communities, but there's a reasoning to it, and a lot of it is about safety.

Even so, the label "sanctuary" itself has no strict criteria, can't override federal law, and means something slightly different to each community that claims it. President Krislov did in fact write, "I embrace the spirit of the 'sanctuary campus' movement." He also continued on to list ways that the college would support undocumented students, most of which were demands that OUI had been pushing for since 2013. For probably all purposes, Oberlin can be called a sanctuary college. Still, the question remains: what does sanctuary mean here?

To begin with, the City of Oberlin, independently from the college, has considered itself a sanctuary city since 2009. This status was reaffirmed in 2017, and Oberlin has a longer history of efforts in line with the modern sanctuary movement. On the level of local government, sanctuary status means that the Oberlin Police Department has taken a stance against collaborating with ICE. (If an undocumented person got pulled over for speeding in Oberlin, it wouldn't result in them being detained and possibly deported.) Neither Oberlin police nor Campus Safety & Security cooperate with immigration enforcement unless they're required to by law.

In the case that ICE were to come on campus with a legally valid warranty and ask for a specific student, the College would not be able to step in, and the label "sanctuary" would have no direct impact on the legal protection of an undocumented student. However, there are sanctuary spaces within the town of Oberlin, independent of the college, where an undocumented person could be harbored if need be. Because ICE considers certain spaces "sensitive locations," these would in most cases protect someone from ICE for the time being. The college could connect the person to legal support, and pockets of campus like OUI would be committed to bettering the situation in any way possible.

On an institutional level, Oberlin's basically-sanctuary status affects admissions and the kinds of support that are available to undocumented students. Oberlin admits students regardless of immigration status and has a partnership with Golden Door Scholars, a scholarship specifically for undocumented students. Oberlin has also endowed OUI's Undocumented Student Scholarship Fund, which undocumented students can use for things like tuition, DACA application fees, and legal assistance. Additionally, the Multicultural Resource Center is committed to providing resources for undocumented and DACAmented students. (From that link, you can also donate to the UndocuFund, which I highly recommend doing if you can!) The Multicultural Resource Center, as well as the Comparative American Studies department, consistently shows up for OUI's work, which recently has been mostly educational workshops and other events. OUI is also in the process of pushing for institutional change in two more ways and creating a more tangible support system for undocumented students— I'll save the details for a future blog post.

Four and a half years after the Sanctuary Campus March and seven years after OUI's founding, there is absolutely still work to do. Oberlin is nowhere near perfect in its treatment of undocumented students. Still, there are multiple groups committed to affirming undocumented people's right to be here, multiple systems set up to support them, and a few more underway. Some members of OUI have said that they scoured Oberlin's website as prospective students, searching for any resources or advocacy efforts for undocumented students, and were made anxious by how little they found. Undocumented prospies, if you're reading this: we're here, we see you, and we'd love to connect with you.

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