"Gabriela" P. is just two semesters and one miserable biochemistry exam away from doing what she's spent the last decade of her life trying to do: graduate from college.
But even though she's closer than ever before, Gabriela, a 28-year-old undocumented student at Florida International University, is worried that the Trump administration will repeal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), leaving her without a degree and without a home.
"I don't want to go back into the shadows," Gabriela said. "When we applied for DACA we gave them all our information. They know where I live, they know where I work, they know where I go to school. They're going to start coming for us now."
DACA temporarily spared undocumented immigrants like Gabriela who entered this country as minors from deportation for a two-year-period, making them eligible for work permits and in-state tuition. While GOP Senator Lindsey Graham has been quietly leading the fight for undocumented students on a national scale, Gabriela has been busy petitioning her school to declare itself a "sanctuary campus" and pledge not to turn undocumented students over to federal immigration officials.
She hopes this label will potentially protect her and her fellow undocumented students on campus from deportation.
So far, Florida International University — home to close to 54,000 students, 61 percent of whom are Latino — has said rejected the label. And there are dozens of other schools, many of with progressive administrations, who've given the exact same answer: No.
It's a heartbreaking answer for students like Gabriela to hear, who spent almost a decade trying to get into school before Obama created DACA with executive action in 2012. Universities like Florida International University are supposed to be "safe spaces," spaces where undocumented students like her can go and pursue their education in (relative) peace.
But school administrators in places like Florida International University remain unclear how much sanctuary campus status can protect students like her. And some institutions worry about the cost to them if they do accept the label.
Sanctuary campuses are largely without legal precedent
Sanctuary campuses take their cue from sanctuary cities, cities that attempt to protect their undocumented residents by limiting their cooperation with federal immigration authorities unless compelled by court order and state law.
Neither sanctuary campuses nor sanctuary cities have standard legal definitions. Still, organizers hope sanctuary campuses can provide relatively safe havens for undocumented and immigrant students by minimizing their collaboration with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Movimiento Cosecha, an organization helping to lead the sanctuary campus movement, wants universities and colleges to refuse, "all voluntary information sharing with ICE/U.S. Customs and Border Protection across all aspects of the college/university to the fullest extent possible under the law." Movimiento Cosecha would have schools refuse ICE access, prohibit campus security from collaborating with ICE and continue to provide DACA students with in-state tuition, regardless of whether its repealed.
Some activists have even gone so far to ask that their university chapel serve as a physical sanctuary for undocumented students.
Image: peter hvidzak/new haven register via AP
For American universities, this is largely unprecedented territory:
"There has never been large-scale immigration enforcement on U.S. campuses," Stephen Yale-Loehr, Professor of Immigration Practice at Cornell University told Mashable, citing a yet-to-be-published article he wrote with Dan Berger. "There have been individual actions. Therefore, it is not clear what form such action might take, and what kind of court challenges would be successful."
Though a petition to make Florida International University a sanctuary campus has received over 400 signatures, Gabriela is worried that many people at her school still don't get it:
"Some of the faculty and some students don't know what DACA is," she said. "They have no idea... How do you tell people that DACA is important?"
Some schools are afraid of making empty promises
Though students at over 100 schools all across the country — from the Ivy League to some of America's largest public universities — have petitioned and protested on behalf of sanctuary campuses, only 28 schools so far have chosen to adopt the label. Connecticut College, Wesleyan University, Columbia University and University of Pennsylvania are part of a very small list of schools that now identify as sanctuary schools. Even school that have historically progressive reputations, like Brown, have rejected the status:
"What we have not done is to declare that we would bar law enforcement or ICE officers from our campus . . . As much as we’d like to offer absolute protection to our students, we feel that it would be irresponsible to promise that particular form of restriction, which we cannot legally offer," the school recently said in a press release.
A statement recently released by Florida International University echoed Brown's language, offering affected students counseling and supportive services, just not sanctuary status:
"We want to reassure you that our values of diversity and inclusion remain unchanged, and we are committed to supporting all of our students – including dreamers – while we follow the law," the statement reads.
It's a deeply disappointing conclusion for many undocumented students and their allies on campus — and for some, an illogical one. Since sanctuary campuses are new, it's unclear whether or not universities would, in fact, be breaking any laws by harboring undocumented immigrants, and what that term harboring even means in this context.
"There are serious and unresolved legal issues about whether federal funding or the ability to operate a student visa could be affected by various pieces of sanctuary campus plans and what role federal law on 'harboring' undocumented immigrants plays in all this," Yale-Loehr writes. "No court has provided clear guidance for interpreting the meaning of harboring an undocumented immigrant."
Image: nathan lambrecht/the monitor via AP
Moreover, students note, campus security officials are employees of the school, not ICE officers. They are not trained to remove undocumented immigrants from campus. As Yale-Loehr explains, unlike criminal warrants, immigration warrants "only allows an immigration enforcement officer to make an arrest in a public place."
Despite legal ambiguities, some campuses have nonetheless embraced the label. Daisy Romero is an undocumented student at University of Pennsylvania, which recently declared itself a sanctuary campus. For Romero, feeling safe is fundamental not just to her life, but to the university's very mission:
"Every student student at a university wants it to be a safe space for learning," Romero said. "If we can't do that, then the university is not doing its main job . . . To have all of what you've gained so far taken away from you, it's un-American."
Both Daisy and Gabriela emphasized that they knew the limits of the sanctuary campus model. A school may refuse to collaborate with ICE authorities, but the federal government was given their information when they voluntarily signed up for DACA. ICE — and soon to be Trump — has access to their information. They know where they eat and live, where they go to school. Universities have power, but so too (and with much greater force) does their government.
Still, many undocumented students want to hear that their campus is not only in support of the DREAM Act and DACA, but that they're committed to the sanctuary model. In the first 10 days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that there were almost 900 incidents of hate across the nation. Of those incidents, 32 percent were determined to be attacks against immigrants.
More than ever, students like Daisy and Gabriela have asked their campuses to demonstrate their allyship by concretizing their solidarity. The sanctuary campus label may only end up being a symbol of dissent, but it still holds power and value — a bulwark of defense against an administration seemingly intent on destroying it.
"I'm not asking for the moon and the stars, I'm asking for my degree," Gabriela said. "Right now I'm just hoping that they'll protect us . . . They won't give our information out. They won't charge us out of state fees. I don't get financial aid . . . Before DACA I couldn't work or go to school. I was so depressed. I was a ghost of a person walking around . . . I don't want to go back to the shadows."
It's more than just sanctuary campuses
Despite the direness of their situation, Gabriela and Daisy both stressed that the issue is larger and more complex than sanctuary campuses. Some leaders in Congress, most notably GOP Senator Lindsey Graham, have been actively pushing to build a bridge from DACA and protect the 740,000 undocumented immigrants who benefited from it.
"The worst outcome is to repeal the legal status that these kids have,” Graham recently told Politico. “Whether you agree with them having it or not, they’ve come out of the shadows."
There are so other undocumented immigrants, Gabriela and Daisy noted, who are more vulnerable than these students. They're adults who may not be in school — and less seemingly worth of protection — but who are working and paying their taxes. Though Trump has promised to deport undocumented immigrants who've committed crimes first, he's also pledged to build a massive deportation force, which could lead to the exodus of some 11 million immigrants.
"We can't forget about the rest of the undocumented immigrants," Daisy said. "We have our parents and our friends... I don't how my family and friends will be affected. Detention facilities are not the best places to be in if you're an immigrant. That's what scares me the most."
Daisy is thrilled that her campus has declared itself a sanctuary campus, and is hoping to keep pushing the campus to extend its outreach into the community. Gabriella has continued to push her school to do more, as have students at Harvard, University of Illinois, University of Nevada and at a schools all across the country. Even as some campuses push back — Governor Greg Abbott of Texas declared in a tweet that he would defund any state university that declares itself a sanctuary campus — the movement appears to have only grown.
"Before DACA... I feel into a huge depression at that time, so I started volunteering at a wildlife center," Gabriella said. "I took care of raptors of birds of prey. They tell me I'm not American but I rehabilitated injured american eagles. . . I work. I go to school. And I want to help — What's more American than that?"