Students stroll by the Student Union Memorial Center on the campus of the University of Arizona.

Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star/

Universities across the country are declaring themselves as sanctuary campuses in light of tougher immigration policies from the White House — some, under pressure from students and local communities.

Arizona’s three public universities, however, have no such plans to designate themselves sanctuary campuses.

“Sanctuary” in the political sense generally means a safe place, such as a church, where people can take refuge from immigration enforcement. While campuses, like churches, are considered to be sensitive zones, local and national experts say sanctuary campuses may not come with tangible protections for international, immigrant and undocumented students, experts say.

Arizona students asked for sanctuary designations of campuses at the Board of Regents’ meeting last week in Tempe. While state university presidents have openly expressed support for international and immigrant students, the schools are not considering it.

An unofficial count puts the number of sanctuary campuses nationwide at around 30, including the University of Pennsylvania and Portland State University.

“We don’t want to jeopardize our campuses in any way,” said Eileen Klein, president of the Board of Regents. “Yet, at the same time, we’ve done a good job of making sure that our students know that we’re actively working to make sure opportunities are there for them.”

Many universities, like Arizona’s, have shied away from labeling themselves for the fear that federal funding would dry up.

The Star tried to independently confirm each university’s stance, but Northern Arizona and Arizona State universities did not respond. University of Arizona spokesman Chris Sigurdson referred to memos written by President Ann Weaver Hart and declined to comment further.

UA president opposes travel ban

In a recent memo to UA students and employees, Hart said she opposed executive order banning entry to citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, which has now been overturned, and indefinitely suspending the refugee program. She has also expressed support for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students.

Many of the policies that sanctuary campuses enact already exist at the UA, according to Hart. She said in a November memo: “Student privacy is assured by federal law, and it applies to all students regardless of residency status. That includes safeguarding their personal information, academic record, counseling services and any information the students want to withhold from the student directory.”

She also said there is an Immigrant Student Resource Center, which is funded by student fees, that also helps DACA students and that UA’s online programs are open to all students at the same price, regardless of state residency or immigration status.

But Irasema Fonseca, a UA junior who has interned for the resource center and spoke out in favor of sanctuary campus designations at the regents meeting, said she doesn’t agree that enough is being done for the immigrant community on the UA campus. “These are words and not enough actions,” she said.

Fonseca said students are scared and they cannot focus on their academics when they’re afraid of themselves or their family members being deported.

For Fonseca, a sanctuary designation is a necessary move, especially for a diverse institution like the UA. “We’re one of the most diverse universities in the nation. We’re extremely close to the border with Mexico. There’s a huge population of students from Mexico.”

It’s not just about undocumented students from Mexico or those who have deferred action status, she said. It’s about the entire immigrant community at the UA, which includes international students and scholars.

Rapidly changing situation

Regent Ron Shoopman said in a meeting with the Star that the board will not act on any sanctuary designations based on speculations about what the Trump administration may do.

“We try to do things based on the facts of the situation,” he said. “It would be speculation for me to even say whether I’d go this way or another until we can better understand it.”

That was in response to questions regarding the possible termination of DACA, which President Trump said on the campaign trail he would repeal. So far, that hasn’t happened, but what did happen is a less-publicized executive order that increases interior enforcement, which could affect Arizona students’ lives.

Interior enforcement refers to immigration enforcement that happens inside the United States, away from borders and other ports of entry, including airports.

Nina Rabin, an immigration attorney and professor at the UA’s law college, explained at a forum on the executive order that people who didn’t used to be on the priority list for removal may now face deportation.

That group includes a long list of people: those who were charged with criminal offenses, whether the case was resolved or not, committed acts that constitute criminal offenses, deemed to be a threat to public safety, found to be abusing government benefit systems or suspected of misrepresenting their immigration status, she said.

It also includes those who live within 100 miles of the border, which includes the UA, but who cannot produce proof of having lived in the country for two years, she said. That would mean foreign and undocumented students should carry copies of necessary documents with them at all times, she said.

Sanctuary designation has no legal effect

Sanctuary is a “spectrum,” says Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration attorney and professor at Cornell University, at a recent panel discussion in Philadelphia on sanctuary campuses.

Some colleges designate specific spaces where undocumented students can go to be protected, he said. Others have reaffirmed existing policies of not disclosing student information to federal immigration officials.

What’s important to note, though, is that “sanctuaries don’t have legal effect,” he said. If immigration enforcement officials want to enter campus, they can get a warrant to do so. “But sanctuary resolutions help students feel more secure,” he said.

Having a single point of contact to deal with immigration issues on campus, providing counseling and legal consultation to foreign, immigrant and undocumented students whose stay in the U.S. may be in jeopardy are some things universities can do within legal limits, he said.

The situation regarding immigration policies is changing by the minute, local and national immigration attorneys say. “We don’t know what’s going to come out next. It’s just chaos,” said Roxie Bacon, a Phoenix-based attorney who has worked in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Bacon advised students to suspend travel outside of the U.S., make copies of all immigration-related documents and safeguard them with friends, stay away from internal Border Patrol checkpoints and reach out for help.

“You’re not as scared if you’re prepared,” she said.

Contact: 573-4243 or yjung@tucson.com. On Twitter: @yoohyun_jung