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Barchi declares Rutgers 'safe haven' for undocumented students

Students sat in during the Board of Governors meeting on Dec. 6, demanding that Rutgers call itself a “sanctuary campus.” Earlier during the meeting, University President Robert L. Barchi called the school a “safe haven” for undocumented students. – Photo by Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez | The Daily Targum

University President Robert L. Barchi established Rutgers as a safe haven for undocumented students during the Board of Governors meeting on Tuesday afternoon.

As a safe haven, Barchi said Rutgers will protect the privacy and rights of undocumented immigrant students up to the point where they are required to turn information over by a subpoena, warrant or court order. The University’s position remains unchanged from a letter he sent to students and faculty last month.

“I sent out a letter to all of our campus community at the beginning of this semester indicating we are a safe haven for our immigrant students— and all of our students— and that we will continue to be so, that we will protect their privacy, that we will not release information unless we’re required to do so by subpoena or court order,” he said. “We will continue to be as supportive of them as we possibly can.”

While Barchi stopped short of declaring Rutgers a “sanctuary campus,” his actions effectively meant Rutgers is one, said American Association of University Professors - American Federation of Teachers Rutgers president David Hughes.

By promising to protect student rights within the law, Barchi has followed in the tradition of other institutions that have agreed to protect students from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“That is the threshold, that is the mark of a sanctuary campus as established by Columbia (University) and a number of other institutions,” he said. “I want to commend you for that. I think this is a tremendously bold step and I think this puts Rutgers in the tradition of its founders.”

The University’s charter includes a line saying that Rutgers’ “Trustees (should) establish a University for the benefit of the community,” Hughes said. This community includes New Brunswick, where many undocumented immigrants live.

Because Rutgers is promising to protect their rights, more students will be willing to come to the University secure in the knowledge that they can learn, he said.

“They’re scared, as you said, they’re scared that Rutgers is not a place that they can learn. That’s what they’re hearing from the new president,” he said. “What they’re hearing from you, our president, is that Rutgers is a sanctuary where you can learn, and this is important.”

The University still needs to go further, said Rutgers-Newark Center for Law and Justice student Thais Marques.

“I commend the University for doing what they have always done, which President Barchi said is a safe haven,” she said. “What he calls a safe haven is already the status quo of the University. If Rutgers was a sanctuary, we wouldn’t be (protesting).”

Marques, who is an undocumented immigrant, said Rutgers should allocate more resources and promise to prevent ICE agents from looking for students on campus, as well as address several other points in their petition.

While Rutgers does offer legal counseling for undocumented immigrants, the fact that the only office is in Newark means it is difficult for many students in New Brunswick or Camden to take advantage of it, she said.

She said she wants Barchi to formally declare Rutgers as a sanctuary campus.

The term sanctuary is important to students, especially those who are attending college as part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy or the New Jersey Tuition Equality Act, said Carlos Decena, chair of the Department of Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies.

“I agree with President Barchi in thinking the term sanctuary can be vague, but so can the word ‘safe haven,’” he said. “I think there have to be concrete expressions of the commitment … clearly the students want to see more.”

Barchi said he wanted to avoid using the term “sanctuary campus” because there is no legal definition for it. Instead, Rutgers will use the phrase “safe haven,” but define what that means for students.

“We are concerned about all of the various interpretations of the word sanctuary that have been applied around this country and the application of nebulous definitions of the word outside Rutgers,” he said. “Rather than using a label, we are using definitions of what we will do and what we will not do.”

Decena said that Barchi is likely facing a lot of different pressures given the political aspects around the term “sanctuary,” but at the same time, using the word might be the only way to convey to students that their fears will be met by a “substantive, institutional response.”

There is no negative connotation to the word, Marques said. It is important for students that Rutgers uses that specific term, as well as meet the other points students want the school to meet.

If the University refuses to do so, it means the school is ignoring student demands, she said.

Marques said she wants those who are against undocumented immigrants to understand that she is a human being.

“We came here looking for a better opportunity, not to steal jobs or whatever other myths that are in their heads,” she said. “We are not the root of all evil in this country - this country depends on immigrant labor … the economy depends on us. We are going to win the dignity we deserve, we are not going to stop until we get protection, and we’re going to get it.”

Decena said he was happy to hear Barchi’s statement, but still thinks the University has some way to go to continue to protect students. The University President’s statement does show that he is listening to students and acknowledging their concerns.

“Our student body is under threat,” Hughes said to Barchi. “We love Rutgers as more than what it has become (and) by establishing a campus sanctuary, (and) that’s what you’ve done, you’ve reaffirmed that we’re all here ... representing Rutgers, and we are a University of the 21st Century.”

Nikhilesh De is the news editor of The Daily Targum. He is a School of Engineering senior. Follow him on Twitter @nikhileshde for more.

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