SUNY Sanctuary for Undocumented Students

In the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s win in the 2016 presidential election, faculty at SUNY New Paltz and other colleges and universities in the SUNY system are organizing to make SUNY schools sanctuaries for undocumented students.

Information from Trump’s campaign website indicates a 10-point plan to “put America first,” according to the President-elect. Included in Trump’s plan is a clause that would terminate President Barack Obama’s “non-enforcement laws” regarding undocumented immigrants. Trump also vowed to move undocumented immigrants out of the country “in joint operations with local, state and federal law enforcement.”

In response to Trump’s plans for his imminent presidency, faculty in the sociology department worked together to create a petition urging college President Donald Christian and Provost Lorin Basden Arnold to “declare [the college] a sanctuary of higher education, joining other colleges and cities around the nation who are committed to protecting the students, faculty and staff from deportation, investigation or other intimidation.” 

Sociology professor Sunita Bose spearheaded the college’s efforts, sending an email blast to faculty and staff on the morning of Thursday, Nov. 17 announcing the online petition.

“Given the diverse population at SUNY New Paltz, we know that our students are a vulnerable population,” Bose wrote. “To that effect, we are requesting the SUNY New Paltz administration to take a step further and make SUNY New Paltz a sanctuary campus.”

According to Bose, the idea for the petition at SUNY New Paltz originated in a few different places, including the Women of Color Faculty and Staff organization that Bose herself belongs to. 

Most of the staff members in the organization had heard about hateful graffiti incidents on campus and wanted to mobilize to help the campus’s most vulnerable student populations, Bose said. The idea for the sanctuary petition came up from news the group had been following. Simultaneously, another campus organization was working to formulate a similar petition for campus community members.

On Monday, Nov. 21, Bose and librarian Heather Shimon presented the petition to the administration. When time came to present the petition, Bose and her team garnered 308 signatures, most of which came from faculty and staff, she noted. Since then, Bose said she has been approached by faculty and students who wanted to sign but were too late to the game.

“Our main selling point was that the administration takes pride in diversity and inclusivity,” Bose said. “This is our chance to take a stand, to be truly inclusive and protect the most vulnerable among us.”

Bose and Shimon’s plan didn’t go exactly as they’d hoped, since President Donald Christian and Provost Lorin Basden Arnold were both off campus that day. Regardless, the administration received and responded to the group’s efforts. Christian sent out an email blast to students and faculty the following week on Thursday, Dec. 1 affirming that the petition’s goal was under consideration on the administrative level.

“We join those who signed the petition and others in the commitment to creating a diverse, pluralistic learning environment that provides educational opportunity for all students, irrespective of national origin,” Christian and Arnold wrote in the email. “If any action is to be taken regarding a sanctuary designation, consideration would begin with the SUNY Board of Trustees, and we will keep you apprised of deliberations at that level as we learn of them.”

Other colleges and universities across the state and the nation, including New York City’s CUNY college and university network, have already taken similar actions, designating institutes of higher learning as mandated sanctuaries to protect undocumented immigrants. Additionally, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared the state of New York itself a refuge for undocumented immigrants and minorities, according to a post from Gov. Cuomo’s Facebook fanpage.

“As New Yorkers, we have fundamentally different philosophies than what Trump laid out in his campaign,” Gov. Cuomo wrote on Monday, Nov. 14. “Let me be absolutely clear: If anyone feels that they are under attack, I want them to know that the state of New York – the state that has the Statue of Liberty in its harbor – is their refuge. Whether you are gay or straight, Muslim or Christian, rich or poor, black or white or brown, we respect all people in the state of New York.”

Bose believes that Gov. Cuomo’s designation of New York as a sanctuary state bodes well for the petition’s prospects at SUNY.

“We are not even asking for an unusual step,” she said. “As a state institution of higher education, we would simply be following what our governor wants.”