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Can Yale Be a Sanctuary?

On the night of January 29, 2017, a crowd of nearly 1,500 people gathered in front of Sterling Memorial Library. The previous week, President Donald Trump had issued a dizzying array of executive orders targeting refugees and immigrants. The people had come to protest. The word SOLIDARITY, projected over Sterling’s façade, illuminated the old stones with a call to action. Swaddled in winter coats and holding candles, students, professors, and New Haven residents young and old stood shoulder-to-shoulder.

Yale sophomore Alejandra Corona Ortega took the microphone and began to speak. She said the recent presidential election had made her question whether she belonged at Yale—that, as an undocumented immigrant, she’d begun to wonder if the promises of America were not for her. Was an America that would elect Trump a country that could ever support her?

Her voice rose as she addressed Trump’s recent threats to increase deportations and withhold funding from sanctuary cities like New Haven, which has pledged to limit its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement actions.

“He, and people like him, will never stop until we are too afraid or overwhelmed to speak up,” she said. “Or worse, too indifferent to do anything. But nights like these give me the strength to not let fear seep in.”

Corona Ortega, a New Haven local who graduated as valedictorian of the Sound School in 2015, continued amid applause. She’s become accustomed to speaking about her immigration status — she “came out” as undocumented last spring at a rally for Bernie Sanders on the New Haven Green.

“Lastly, Yale and Yalies, do better. Don’t think of this as only your Yale community. Think of this as your New Haven community too.”

She handed the microphone off. The crowd cheered.

Alejandra Corona Ortega, an undocumented Yale sophomore from New Haven, says she feels more supported by the local community than the Yale administration in the age of Trump.

For liberal arts institutions, the Trump presidency — evidently hostile to dissent of any kind, fearful of multiculturalism, skeptical of experts and even the notion of truth — poses a range of confounding challenges. Few are more urgent than how to respond to Trump’s immigration policies. How far will Yale go to protect those who study and teach here? How much power does this wealthy, elite institution have to resist the tide of national policy? And how does the institution’s location in New Haven — the country’s first “sanctuary city”— affect the answers to these questions?

How far will Yale go to protect those who study and teach here? How much power does this wealthy, elite institution have to resist the tide of national policy?

In the uneasy first month of the Trump presidency, there are few answers. But activism has escalated significantly at Yale and in New Haven, forcing these issues to the fore. Since Trump’s inauguration on January 20, city residents and students have taken to the streets and to the Green, many protests organized primarily by New Haven organizations like Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA). Almost all have been direct responses to Trump’s immigration policies.

In his first week in office, Trump issued four executive orders targeting immigrants. On January 27, he banned refugees worldwide from entering the United States. He temporarily halted immigration for ninety days for all people from the predominantly Muslim countries Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, a ban which has since been frozen by federal courts. He ordered the construction of a 2,000-mile-long wall along the Mexican border. He announced plans for a weekly online list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. And he re-enacted the “Secure Communities” program, started under George W. Bush and continued under Obama until 2014. The program requires the FBI, which routinely runs the fingerprints of arrested individuals against its own databases, to also run them against databases maintained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) —sometimes leading to deportation or other legal consequences.

“Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” the executive order most directly concerning to Corona Ortega and other undocumented Yale affiliates, expands the discretionary power of individual ICE officers. It also broadens the definition of “criminal” to target nearly every undocumented immigrant for deportation. The university does not collect official numbers, but the Yale Daily News reported in 2013 that there were at most twenty undocumented students on campus. This year, Ramon Garibaldo Valdez, an undocumented first-year graduate student who has advocated for undocumented students, estimated the number to be somewhere around thirty.

The flurry of action has left undocumented Yale students bracing for the worst. Corona Ortega and others who have no legal status worry that their long-held fears of deportation could come true. Other students, like junior Rafael*, obtained a Social Security Number and a driver’s license through the Deferred Action Childhood Arrival Program (DACA), a program Obama created in 2013 via executive order. Rafael can drive and work legally in the U.S., and he feels safe to a certain extent. But “DACA-mented” students face a new threat to their sense of security, too: Throughout his campaign, Trump threatened to end DACA entirely. Some undocumented Yalies, like Corona Ortega, have turned to activism. Others, like Rafael, fear talking publicly about their immigration status. Because Yale is the wealthiest and most powerful institution with which they are affiliated, many are looking to the university for support in this moment of uncertainty.

Yale has taken a strong public stance against one aspect of Trump’s immigration policy: the ban on refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries. As a member of the Association of American Universities, Yale backed a January 28 AAU statement calling for a swift end to the executive order, which would have barred returning students and faculty from certain countries — a fact University President Salovey detailed in a campus-wide email on January 29. On February 13, Yale joined Harvard, Stanford, and fourteen other universities in filing an amicus curiae brief in support of a legal case against the order. Salovey has also publicly supported the BRIDGE Act, recently proposed legislation meant to protect DACA students if the program were terminated.

In a November opinion piece in the Yale Daily News, Salovey promised legal representation for undocumented Yale students and formalized the Yale Police Department’s policy of non-compliance with ICE. Tom Conroy, director of the university’s Office of Public Affairs & Communications, wrote in an email that university policy now mandates that YPD officers will neither inquire as to immigration status in non-criminal activity “nor enforce civil provisions of U.S. immigration law.”

Following the election, the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) created a new website with resources and advice for undocumented and DACA-mented students. On November 9, OISS director Ann Kuhlman sent an email to undocumented students. She acknowledged that “some of the policies discussed during the campaign are understandably raising concerns for the undocumented and DACA-mented community, at Yale and beyond, on how the new administration will address the broader issue of undocumented individuals.” She wrote to the recipients: “you are an important and valued part of the Yale community and to let you know our office is alert to these issues and will monitor them closely. Presidents Salovey and Levin before him have long advocated for a reform of U.S. immigration and expressed support for the DREAM Act. This expression of support will continue.” At the end, she wrote: “We are all here for you.”

While many immigrants and their supporters on campus say they appreciate the offers of assistance from OISS, they remain frustrated with what they view as an opaque response from the Yale administration. On December 19, Salovey quietly rejected a petition signed by nearly 1,000 members of the community asking Yale to designate itself a “sanctuary campus.” The sanctuary designation, a concept both symbolic and concrete that has drawn massive support on college campuses around the country, would publicly declare Yale’s refusal to collaborate with ICE officials attempting to detain members of the university community. While all Ivy League universities except the University of Pennsylvania publicly rejected the label, students at over one hundred schools have petitioned to adopt it. Thirteen colleges, including Wesleyan University and Connecticut College, have publically declared themselves as sanctuaries.

“I am not vulnerable in the sense that I have a Yale degree,” he said. “But I am vulnerable because some of the closest people to me are vulnerable, and there is nothing I can do to stop that.”

Salovey’s rejection came at the bottom of a Yale News press release about the BRIDGE Act — without ceremony and without campus-wide recognition. Tom Conroy, director of the university’s Office of Public Affairs & Communications, said in an email that the briefing was emailed out to the entire Yale community. “Yale’s Office of Public Affairs has engaged with a number of media members about Yale’s position, and I don’t believe there is any public confusion regarding that position,” he wrote. But much of the student body seems to remain unaware of the decision: a January 27th Yale Daily News article on the Yale sanctuary campus movement wrote that Salovey had “indicated neither support nor opposition to that proposal.” And on February 8th, Viviana Arroyo, co-moderator of the student organization Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), wrote in an email, “Many students are unclear about whether or not the administration has clearly come out and said that Yale will be a sanctuary campus.” The day of the vigil, Salovey sent a university-wide email to the university community expressing support for Yale’s immigrant community and highlighting the importance of diversity on campus, but no administrator spoke at the event.

Corona Ortega has a hard time falling asleep these days. Events like the vigil are bright moments in an otherwise stressful period. An aspiring lawyer, she is taking five classes as an Ethnicity, Race & Migration major, working as a public school intern through Dwight Hall, volunteering with New Haven’s JUNTA for Progressive Action, and organizing in support of immigrants like herself at Yale—all while constantly monitoring the news for updates on Trump’s policies. Though she says her friends at school have been supportive since the election, most are not undocumented, and the people she worries about are not on campus.

They sold everything they owned to pay a coyote to help them make the journey to New Haven with Corona Ortega’s older brother and stepfather.

Since Trump’s election, New Haven’s status as a sanctuary city—which Mayor Toni Harp has repeatedly affirmed in recent weeks even in the face of federal funding cuts—has come to feel more significant to Corona Ortega, who moved here with her family nearly ten years ago. She spent most of her childhood over two-thousand miles away from her mother: While Corona Ortega and her brother stayed home with relatives in Puebla, Mexico, her mom worked in New Haven and sent money back to support them. After nearly a decade away, her mother moved back to Puebla to be with her children. But making ends meet was nearly impossible—she opened a series of bakeries that all failed. When Corona Ortega finished sixth grade, her mother told her that they wouldn’t be able to afford to send her to seventh; in Mexico, her school charged for uniforms and other mandatory services. But Corona Ortega was smart, her mother said, and deserved a better life than the one she’d had. They sold everything they owned to pay a coyote to help them make the journey to New Haven with Corona Ortega’s older brother and stepfather.

The Elm City’s designation as a sanctuary city kept them safe. Once, when her mother was driving Corona Ortega home from work in North Branford late one evening, a police officer stopped their car and asked to see her driver’s license. When Corona Ortega’s mother couldn’t produce one, the officer asked why she was driving without a license. “I have to work,” she responded. Corona Ortega recalls that the officer seemed to understand immediately that she was undocumented—but the officer simply fined Corona Ortega’s mother and sent them on their way. On November 14, less than a week after the election, Mayor Toni Harp readied New Haven’s top lawyers to start preparing a legal defense in case Trump attacked New Haven—despite the fact that affirming its sanctuary distinction jeopardizes $56 million of New Haven’s federal funding.

“New Haven residents have never questioned if I deserve an education or if my family deserved a job,” she told the crowd gathered at the vigil in January. “They’re fighting for people like me.”

According to Fatima Rojas, a volunteer with both ULA and JUNTA, fighting for the immigrant community means fighting alongside them. After the election, both immigrant advocacy groups met with representatives from City Hall to set up a working group to define what “sanctuary” will mean for New Haven. The group also includes representatives from the New Haven public school district and the police department. Rojas, who is a member of the working group, says it has defined three principle aims: to strengthen the legal language of the police general order, to extend the sanctuary status to New Haven public schools, and to create a legal document defining New Haven’s concept of a sanctuary city, with help from the Immigration Legal Services Yale Law School clinic.

Since the election in November, attendance at ULA meetings has more than doubled—on the Monday after the inauguration, over fifty members of the New Haven immigrant community packed the folding chairs at the group’s Howe Street office. Children played on the floor as their parents looked to community leaders for advice. Before the election, many came to the group for support in cases of housing discrimination, wage theft, and police brutality. Now, ULA co-founder John Jairo Lugo says that deportation is as real a threat as any. In recent weeks, ULA has worked with La Casa Cultural, the Latinx cultural center at Yale, to organize phone banking sessions to call local representatives, and Lugo says they’ve been inspired by the number of Yale students turning out to show their support at rallies. He’d like to see Yale’s administration extend support to immigrants in New Haven—given the university’s clout, a public show of solidarity could provide a powerful counter to the racism that Trump has legitimized. But, he says, he’s not holding his breath.

Rafael has not felt as anxious as Alejandra on campus or at home in rural Georgia. The path to Yale began when his parents left Aguascalientes, Mexico in 2001, determined to give their children access to education. According to the Pew Research center, the number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico living in the United States rose steadily from 1995; the population peaked at 6.9 million new arrivals in 2007. Rafael and his parents came on legal visas and overstayed, joining the American undocumented population overnight. They followed his father’s friend to a small town in a Trump-voting county with cotton fields and pine groves, fast-food restaurants and a new Wal-Mart Supercenter, a single Catholic church and a handful of Hispanic families. Rafael’s four younger sisters were all born there, and they have all excelled in the town’s public schools. Rafael says going back to Mexico isn’t even a question. They live in Georgia. They’ll stay in Georgia. Most of their family is American.

After easily rising to the top of his middle school, Rafael spent the summer after his junior year in high school at the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program, the most prestigious academic summer program in the state. His success planted what he called “the idea of a Harvard” in his mind, and he focused his college search on prestigious private institutions. His teachers encouraged him to apply out of state. He was that kind of student. But Rafael also had no other options — Georgia is one of three states nationwide that effectively ban undocumented students from enrolling.

When Obama created DACA in 2013, Rafael gained an immigration status that conferred practical and psychological benefits. When he was admitted to Yale, his status was not much of a concern. To Rafael, being at Yale provides an imperfect sense of security. “I am not vulnerable in the sense that I have a Yale degree,” he said. “But I am vulnerable because some of the closest people to me are vulnerable, and there is nothing I can do to stop that.”

Jennifer Angarita, who graduated from Yale in 2010, remembers being undocumented at Yale in a pre-DACA America. Now that she has a Green card, she remains engaged in immigration activism and organizing in Boston, and she spent much of her time at Yale involved with campus groups like MEChA and New Haven groups like JUNTA. Although the university administrators were supportive and she found professors she could trust, she kept her immigration status close to her chest. In particular, she remembers Ann Kuhlman of OISS as an advocate, unwilling to make any public declarations but very sympathetic to what Angarita described as the “trauma of living as an undocumented student.” Now, Angarita and Dwight Hall director Peter Crumlish are discussing establishing an advisory network for undocumented students to connect with undocumented alumni. Postgraduate opportunities are few and uncertain for undocumented students, and she wants to help establish an “underground railroad” of professional and personal support.

Today, it is safer and a little easier for undocumented students to move through the university, especially those protected by DACA. But there are still obstacles for completely undocumented students like Corona Ortega. For one thing, she’d like to work as a peer liaison at La Casa or as an aide in the Timothy Dwight College Office, but without DACA status, she’s not eligible for employment by the university. In accordance with Yale’s need-blind admissions policy, Corona Ortega’s tuition is covered by financial aid. But financial aid doesn’t cover the cost of textbooks, and she says her family needs the additional money she could bring in with a job. Her brother is in community college, and he and their mother both work as wait staff.

To some extent, Corona Ortega does feel protected by the Yale bubble: She says she doubts that ICE agents would come to Yale’s campus to physically detain her—at least, she hopes that Yale wouldn’t allow them to. But after Trump’s executive orders, she worries about the possibility of a less dramatic encounter: returning to her suite one day to find that ICE had unceremoniously left her a deportation order. She’s not confident that the Yale administration could, or would, prevent that from happening. In an email, Conroy wrote that law enforcement can only enter campus with a search warrant, and are required to check in with the Yale Police Department. If that worst-case scenario were to occur, Corona Ortega says she wouldn’t look to Yale for support. Her family has already contacted a lawyer.

“For a student who’s coming of age in the era of Trump, I am looking towards my institution, asking, ‘What do you think?’” he said.

Garibaldo Valdez, the undocumented graduate student in political science, says he thinks Yale’s decision to discreetly publish its rejection of sanctuary campus designation was a politically savvy one.  According to the 2016 Annual Budget Report, Yale receives over $500 million in federal funding that supports seventy-five percent of the research conducted on campus. Conroy dismissed the idea that any of Yale’s actions are influenced by the need to protect funding, writing: “Any speculation that Yale’s positions on undocumented students and immigration is at all influenced by concern for federal research funding is completely unfounded and unfair.”

Garibaldo Valdez doesn’t see the rejection as a complete loss, though. Of the ten pillars of a sanctuary campus presented by the petition, the administration has at least partially implemented half: promising legal representation for students, appointing Ann Kuhlman to be a university liaison for undocumented students, forbidding police cooperation with ICE, and creating the OISS resource website. But Garibaldo Valdez says that these actions constitute only a small fraction of what the administration could do if it wanted to.

“For a student who’s coming of age in the era of Trump, I am looking towards my institution, asking, ‘What do you think?’” he said. “And the response happening right now from the student body is, ‘We are with you, you are a part of Yale.’ And from the administration, it’s ‘We’re kind of with you, but we don’t want to lose federal funding.”

Unlike Corona Ortega, Rafael chose to attend Yale without knowing much about New Haven or Yale’s history with DACA-mented students. When he came to New Haven in 2014, he had never seen the campus, and he is the only member of his family who has. Still, it feels like home.

For Rafael, Yale is about attaining his version of the American Dream. He’s staking out internships at places like Goldman Sachs and McKinsey Consulting, majoring in economics rather than psychology, his passion, to maximize his chances for economic success.

At home in Georgia, switching easily between Spanish and English so his parents could understand, Rafael said he was lucky to have made it to Yale. “I’m on the successful side of the dream,” he said. “I’m fortunate for that. But at the same time, it’s a kind of an ideology that keeps you going forward.” He wants to succeed financially, but he also wants to prove himself. “There’s a stereotype that’s continuously pushed — we aren’t contributing, we aren’t doing anything,” he said of American prejudices against undocumented Hispanic immigrants.

Of her son’s path, Rafael’s mother said, “Te tocó.”

Rafael paused. “I don’t know how to translate that,” he said. “If I translated exactly… ‘it touched you’?”

He tried again. “She’s thankful for that and the fact that it worked out for me,” he said. “She doesn’t want it to sound like it’s been a gift. It’s something that you worked hard for but also, it’s lucky.”

Undocumented students like Rafael and Corona Ortega say they never take their place at Yale for granted. But they also say that as students here, they see themselves as full members of the Yale community—defined not by the public statements of administrators but by the actions of their peers and professors. In that sense, they haven’t been disappointed.

Garibaldo Valdez agrees. Speaking at a Sanctuary Campus walk-out on November 16th, standing in the very same spot where Alejandra would address the crowd two months later, he says he was shocked by the sense of security he felt.

“I have never imagined I could be in a university-regulated space where I don’t have to feel a certain degree of apprehension, not to say fear, to say my status,” he said. “And part of it is not due to the administrative benefits I’ve gotten, but it is due to the student body. And so the student body has made me feel like I am a part of Yale.”

The future remains unknowable; both Alejandra and Rafael move through Yale bearing the constant weight of uncertainty. But one thing is certain: The fate of undocumented immigrants at Yale will depend not only on Trump’s actions but the actions of their neighbors on campus. If students keep attending rallies, calling their senators, showing up—then sanctuary status could be authored by action instead of administrative declaration.

Garibaldo Valdez would still welcome that administrative declaration, though.

“It’s this feeling that I am a part of Yale, and you’re not treating me as such,” he said. “I mean, if one of your students were being threatened with this dark cloud of deportation, would you not go to the furthest extent to protect them? Would you not come up with things to do to make them feel safe? And I am seeing some of that. I wish I could see more of it.”


*To protect himself and his family, Rafael is using a pseudonym in this story.

Isabelle Taft reported from Georgia for this piece.  

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