January 9, 2017
Dear Campus Community:
In the weeks following the 2016 election, the higher education community finds itself part of a national discussion about immigration and possible changes to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that protects more than 750,000 undocumented college students from deportation. In December, I added my name to a statement co-signed by more than 600 college and university presidents expressing our support for the DACA program. At the same time, however, some members of the higher education community are calling on their presidents to go further and declare their institutions “sanctuary campuses.”
I’m writing to share with you my thoughts about these issues and how the University is addressing them.
Clearly, this is a time of uncertainty for members of the Binghamton University community. Nationally, we have seen an increase in intimidation and harassment of students who identify as undocumented, LGBTQA, disabled, Muslim or minority, so it is important that we restate the University’s commitment to diversity, inclusivity and internationalism with a strong and united voice. In November, we issued a statement expressing our support for our students, also providing information regarding campus resources available to those who feel threatened for any reason.
In addition, I recently authored an op-ed published in the local paper that stressed the importance of our international students. These are only the most recent actions on my part to express our continued support for all members of our community. During my five years as president, I have consistently denounced acts of incivility, violence and hate toward our students and workers who identify with groups that are targets of discrimination, and I’ve allocated significant campus resources to promote diversity and inclusion through creation of our Division of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (DDEI) as well as the addition of divisional diversity officers.
Given our strong record of advocacy and action in support of diversity, some members of the University community have called on me to declare Binghamton a “sanctuary campus.” While I am sympathetic to the goals of the sanctuary movement, using the term is problematic and even counterproductive. Consequently, we will not use that term in our policies or statements. SUNY has advised us that campuses “do not have the independent legal authority to declare their campuses ‘sanctuaries.’” (See the letter from Joseph Porter (.pdf, 127kb), SUNY senior vice chancellor for legal affairs and general counsel, as well as the issue brief from the American Council on Education (.pdf, 157kb).) In addition, as Tom Sullivan, president of the University of Vermont and former dean of the School of Law at the University of Minnesota has pointed out, use of the term sanctuary campus provides no more protection than we currently provide. He also notes that the term is misleading because it implies that we are exempt from federal immigration laws. While we will do everything within our legal authority to protect all members of our community, we cannot violate the law. To do so would bring great harm to the University and the students we are trying to protect. (See the letter from President Sullivan [.pdf, 127kb].)
I understand the concerns that international and undocumented students have regarding the possibility that their status at Binghamton will make them more susceptible to deportation. However, Binghamton does not track the immigration status of our students, whether they are documented or not, nor do we maintain records based on documented status. As we indicated in our December letter to the campus, the “University’s commitment is firm in continuing to protect student confidentiality, not sharing private information about our students in accordance with the (federal) Family Educational and Rights of Privacy Act (FERPA).” Nonetheless, we are constrained by both federal and state law regarding any actions taken by federal immigration authorities. If we are approached by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or any other state or federal agency, and asked for information on students, faculty, staff or alumni, we will confer with SUNY legal counsel as to our requirements as a state agency before responding.
We recognize that our undocumented students face a host of challenges, not least of which is the uncertainty they have over their future status. The University provides a range of services that I urge these students to utilize; we have skilled administrators and staff who are sympathetic and have expertise in this area. For example, we recently appointed Professor Daryl Santos to serve as vice provost for diversity to advocate and develop strategies for increasing diversity in collaboration with the DDEI. Over the past year, DDEI has provided cultural competency training (including with respect to issues of immigration status) for hundreds of faculty and staff. We also have several staff members in the office of International Student and Scholar Services; the University Counseling Center; the Dean of Students Office; the Office of Financial Aid; the Ombudsman’s Office; and the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion who work with undocumented students and those from mixed-status families to provide information, support and guidance. In addition, our financial aid office and the Binghamton University Foundation are positioned to assist students in financial need, irrespective of their immigration status. Our approach is to provide multiple locations and means for students to seek help and gain assistance when in need.
Others have suggested that Binghamton lead SUNY in establishing legal services for undocumented students. I feel that this would be duplicative, not only of the services we provide, but also of pending actions by the governor, such as the legal defense fund for immigrants that he has proposed. Nonetheless, I will reconsider if we experience a demand for services that cannot adequately be met.
I recognize that affected students also may have emotional stress because of changes to their status and its impact on their families. In the past three years, we have hired additional counselors to serve our students. I am confident that our University Counseling Center is prepared to work with students in distress.
Again, this is a challenging time for our students, and particularly for those whose legal status is being questioned. I have stated my unequivocal support for them, and for all students who are made vulnerable because of their ethnicity or race, gender identity or religion. As president, I will ensure that Binghamton University does everything it can to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our students, staff and faculty, and I’d like to hear from you if you have any concerns about these issues.