The protests come amid fears that President-elect Donald Trump, who rallied supporters with his attacks on immigration, will make good on his pledge to deport millions of undocumented immigrants once in office next year.
Students and activists are particularly concerned about his plan to “immediately” repeal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, President Barack Obama’s 2012 executive action that protects young people from deportation and allows them to work if they meet certain criteria. Over 700,000 people have DACA status and an estimated 600,000 more are eligible.
Movimiento Cosecho, an immigrant rights group formed this year, coordinated Wednesday’s protests. Organizer Thaís Marques, a 22-year-old political science graduate student at Rutgers University-Newark, said they want to put pressure on colleges across the country to adopt sanctuary policies.
“It’s [also] to show this country that young people are resisting against Donald Trump’s hatred and racism and xenophobia,” she told The Huffington Post.
Marques is a DACA recipient and came to the U.S. from Brazil when she was 5 years old. She’s lived in Newark since childhood.
“I was pretty devastated when Trump won,” she said. “As an undocumented person, I felt a particular kind of fear about what would happen, not just to me, but also the undocumented community in general.”
“I thought about how reversible it is and how much of an easy win it could be for Donald Trump to take that away from us,” she said. “It would be very scary to lose that, and not even have an ID anymore … so I got in survival mode, and survival mode for me is to organize and to be vocal.”
Protesters on her campus planned to walk out of class at 3 p.m. and stage a sit-in for several hours. Movimiento Cosecha was aware of at least 54 confirmed campus protests scheduled for Wednesday, including at New York University, Harvard, Duke, Tufts and Oberlin.
Before Wednesday’s walkouts, over 500 people at Stanford University protested Trump Tuesday, with some calling for the campus to be designated a sanctuary.
The idea of campuses as safe havens stems from sanctuary cities, an unofficial designation for cities where officials limit cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Trump has threatened to cut all funding to sanctuary cities, but several have vowed to continue their policies.
Students, faculty and alumni have also circulated petitions in the past week, calling on administration to designate sanctuary campuses at more than a dozen schools, including Yale, Brown, Stanford, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Massachusetts-Amherst and University of Southern California.
The petitions list several demands that vary by institution. (Read Movimiento Cosecha’s list here.) These include calls for universities to refuse to release information on students’ immigration statuses, limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities and bar them from entering campuses.
It’s unclear if colleges would legally be allowed to implement all the proposals.
Brown University Vice President for Communications Cass Cliatt told Newsweek in a statement that under advice from legal counsel, they believe “private universities and colleges do not have legal protection from entry by members of law enforcement or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
A UW-Madison spokeswoman told Heat Street the university’s chancellor doesn’t have the authority to declare the campus a sanctuary.
ICE already considers college campuses and schools, along with churches and hospitals, “sensitive locations.” The agency has taken a hands-off approach to enforcement at those places, César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an assistant law professor at the University of Denver and author of Crimmigration Law, told HuffPost.
He said a sanctuary designation might not have a significant effect on ICE tactics, but it could have a “symbolic impact.”
“It sends a message to all immigrant students and students who have immigrants in their families that the university is an inclusive community, that the goal of the university is to educate and promote an engaged citizenry for the future and that we do that without regard to citizenship status, without regard to immigration status,” he said.
García Hernández added that it made sense that students were leading an effort to protect immigrant rights.
“The reason why we have DACA is because students took the very risky and courageous decision to out themselves as unauthorized in order to force the Obama administration to recognize that despite their immigration status, they were nonetheless part of our communities,” he said.
“I wasn’t at all surprised to see that they would be once again at the forefront of the immigrants rights movement in the era of a Trump presidency,” he added.
Since the Nov. 8 election, there have been dozens of reports of acts of hate and discrimination against groups Trump has maligned, including Muslims, people of color and immigrants. A significant number of incidents reported to authorities occurred on college campuses.
“We’re already seeing that immigrant students aren’t exactly in a safe place on campus, so it really is the responsibility of the university to do something about that,” Marques said. “Young people are going to lead the way to create real structural changes so that policies created by Donald Trump won’t have an effect on the most vulnerable people.”