Activists push UMass to declare itself a ‘sanctuary’ campus for immigrants

  • Umass students on their way to Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy's office during a UMass student organized walk out protesting the immigration policies proposed by President-elect Donald Trump.

Published: 12/13/2016 12:21:59 AM

AMHERST — Almost a month ago, activists marched on area college campuses, demanding administrators declare their schools “sanctuaries” for their undocumented immigrant students in the wake of Donald J. Trump’s Election Day victory.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, 600 students, staff and faculty signed letters to Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy demanding that and more. Two days later, Subbaswamy sent out a letter to the campus community.

“I and my administration are fully committed, as we always have been, to ensuring a safe and welcoming environment for every member of our community, regardless of immigration status,” he wrote, in part. 

The letter continued with a bullet-point list of the steps college leaders had taken in the past, and would continue to take.

Among them: prohibiting the UMass Police Department from gathering immigration status information; refusing to share private student information unless compelled by court order; continuing in-state tuition for resident Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students; and ensuring the student legal office would be able to assist with immigration related issues.

But something was missing for some activists, including Anna-Claire Simpson, a UMass doctoral candidate and organizer for the campus’s sanctuary movement.

Nowhere in the letter did the chancellor call UMass Amherst a “sanctuary campus,” an important declaration for many.

Simpson said the UMass Sanctuary group and administrators have been in productive conversations since the Nov. 16 march.

She said the group, which she said includes students, staff and faculty, has lobbied administrators to take a more proactive approach to what she said could be an unprecedented immigration crackdown when Trump takes office Jan. 20.

Among the policies under consideration by the university is a so-called “angel fund,” an emergency account designed to help students dealing with immigration issues to help cover legal fees, tuition or relocation costs.

Simpson said the university should also be able to assign an attorney to students, staff or faculty facing immigration issues.

“Students already have Student Legal Services (which is entirely paid for by their tuition), but the capacity for SLS to handle any and all immigration cases in light of Trump’s promised policies is not currently known,” Simpson said in an email.

But while Simpson said administrators have been in talks with interested students, staff and faculty, the lack of a “sanctuary campus” declaration remains a sticking point, she said.

“I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not, but that’s what we’re pushing for,” Simpson said Monday. “It is an important political stand to take.”

Jeffrey P. Cournoyer, a spokesman for the UMass system, said in an email the university will do everything it can within the bounds of the law.

As for declaring UMass Amherst a sanctuary campus, “If there are legal concerns, it is that the university can’t willingly violate state or federal laws,” he said. “To some, the term sanctuary might suggest that the university would do that.”

On Friday, student activists with the sanctuary campus group, as well as members of Divest UMass — a group devoted to lobbying the university to divest from fossil fuel interests — were denied a chance to speak during the public comment portion of a Board of Trustees meeting on campus.

Cournoyer said the board chairman, Victor Woolridge, determines who can speak on a case-by-case basis, and he determined that, in the case of the sanctuary campus activists, “campus administration was actively engaged in a dialogue with students and under the university governance structure that was the appropriate venue for the dialogue to continue.”

Because the groups were turned away in advance of the meeting, organizers put out an alert on Facebook, calling on activists to show up to the meeting chanting and holding signs.

“It was surprising to me that they decided to not hear us out,” Simpson said. “But they did eventually because we made them.”

Contact Jack Suntrup at








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