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Lawmakers To Take Up 'Sanctuary Campuses' And Whether To Punish Those Universities

Ryan E. Poppe
TPR News

You’ve heard of sanctuary cities -- loosely defined as cities that refuse to help federal officials identify and detain immigrants who may be in the country illegally.  Now state lawmakers who begin meeting in Austin Tuesday may also be considering whether to punish so-called “sanctuary campuses” that shield undocumented college students.  Gov. Greg Abbott is threatening to cut off state funding for those campuses, and students are concerned.

On Dec. 1, Gov. Abbott tweeted:  "I will cut funding for any state campus if it establishes sanctuary status."

The Governor’s office has declined to explain exactly how Abbott defines a sanctuary campus. But students like 20-year-old Samuel Cervantes  are worried.

“I was not comfortable telling people that I was undocumented,“ Cervantes says.

Cervantes has lived most of his life in the United States after being brought here by parents who illegally entered Texas from Mexico. He’s a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in political science and communications.

"My dad raised me in a way that made me fear of telling people of my status and I think he did it, not out of malice, he wanted to protect me.  So he didn’t want any of my educational opportunities to be limited,” Cervantes says.

Cervantes was among the many young immigrants given protection from deportation under President Obama’s program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.  President-elect Trump has promised to scrap that program which is currently in legal limbo.

The Governor’s  tweet, while vague, has only heightened fears.

Karla Perez is with the Texas chapter of the United We Dream campaign, one of the student groups that have organized on campuses across the state.  United We Dream is asking university presidents in Texas and elsewhere to declare their campuses “sanctuaries” for undocumented students -- places where students without valid immigration status will be left alone.  

Perez says the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency known as ICE currently doesn’t question the immigration status of college students.  Perez is worried new federal or state policies could change that.

“There’s an ICE policy that speaks to ICE agents not going into sensitive locations like schools, like churches and that includes public universities and what we fear is that policy will be done away with," Perez says.

Texas Public Radio contacted the administrations of the University of Texas System, Texas A&M System and Texas State University.  We asked whether they consider themselves sanctuary campuses and how they’ll respond to possible lawmaker requests for greater cooperation with immigration inquiries.  

The only response came from the office of University of Texas Chancellor William McRaven.  UT System's Communications Director Jenny Caputo says McRaven has signed onto a national effort that calls for protecting the private information of students.

“Chancellor McRaven and UT institution presidents strongly believe in the benefits of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and also believe the program should be upheld, continued and expanded.  We do not discuss the immigration status of our students.  In fact, the law allows and requires us to protect the students’ private information including immigration status,” she says.

It’s unclear how much support exists in the Texas Legislature for identifying sanctuary college campuses and punishing them as the Governor has promised to do. When asked about that, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, answered this way. 

“You know I hope everyone will just settle down ... And cool off a bit, think about it," Straus says. "Talk about the specifics of what they are really talking about.  You certainly don’t want to do anything that have unintended consequences for our students and our campuses.”

So far, at least one state lawmaker says he’s going after sanctuary campuses.  Senator Charles Perry, a Lubbock Republican, says he’s expanding legislation punishing sanctuary cities to include colleges.

“Those that choose to implement policies formally or informally will see state discretionary dollars reduced or removed," Perry says.

Perry says his bill will require campuses to assist federal immigration officials investigating undocumented students who may have committed felony crimes. 

As the debate ramps up at the Capitol, UT student Samuel Cervantes and his family worry about the future.

“You know my mom texts me every morning. She said, ‘I’m sorry to have brought you to this country without your consent because I know you are going through a lot of pressure that you wouldn’t have had back in Mexico,'” he says.

Cervantes says the uncertainty of what will happen has put a lot of strain on his family. 

The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, MALDEF, says it’s prepared to challenge state legislation that violates students’ legal rights.


Ryan started his radio career in 2002 working for Austin’s News Radio KLBJ-AM as a show producer for the station's organic gardening shows. This slowly evolved into a role as the morning show producer and later as the group’s executive producer.