Editorial: Universities must protect undocumented students

December 16, 2016 GMT

Universities should be places where students are challenged with a cacophony of ideas, yet feel physically protected. This distinction is important.

Recently leadership at Connecticut’s leading public universities rightly sought to reaffirm the protective environment for students who are undocumented, as well as others from differing races, religions, gender expressions and political views.

Susan Herbst, president of the University of Connecticut, and Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, separately expressed support for undocumented students who have been alarmed by anti-immigrant stances of president-elect Donald Trump.

The students worry that after Trump takes office next month they could be deported, even if they have no memory of a native country. CT Students for a Dream, started by twin sisters in Danbury, has been forceful in raising the issue and seeking assurances from the public universities.

Most of the undocumented students in the state attend the four state universities and 12 community colleges within the CSCU system, the group said. Exact numbers are unknown, because similar to hospitals, the universities and colleges do not maintain a list of who is undocumented. And that is how it should be.

Some of the steps that UConn will take to protect its undocumented students and those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status include that university police will not disclose a student’s immigration status to agencies and will not make arrests based on warrants from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. If a student is placed in deportation proceedings, then the university will ensure that a degree can be completed.

As Ojakian noted, “Our campuses thrive when people from different backgrounds, walks of life and perspectives have a forum for sharing their beliefs and ideas while learning together. That is the real value of a higher education.”

Those are the right words — now policies are required to put the words into practice. The policies should spell out what the universities and colleges would do to protect undocumented students and exactly how they would handle any overtures from ICE.

Also, the places of higher learning should educate faculty and staff on how to support undocumented students so that everyone has correct and consistent information.

Since the election, Ojakian said in a message this week, he has worked with “campus leadership, outside legal counsel, and national immigration attorneys” to examine all options. This includes understanding the ramifications of a “sanctuary” campus and whether that designation is appropriate for CSCU and its 85,000 students.

The universities’ commitment to social justice is encouraging, and necessary.

From the president-elect’s earlier hard-line stances of deporting all illegal immigrants — an estimated 11 million people in this country — he since has modified his position (in a “60 Minutes” interview) to zero in on those with criminal records.

Still, the state public university system leadership must be prepared to protect the undocumented students and ensure a secure learning environment.

In the long run, an educated populace is best for all and for the state’s economy and harmony.