In an email sent to the undergraduate student body on Monday afternoon, University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 said that though the University is committed to protecting undocumented students, the concept of a Sanctuary Campus is legally unfounded.
“In a country that respects the rule of law, every person and every official, no matter what office he or she may hold, is subject to the law and must respect the rights of others. Princeton University will invoke that principle in courts and elsewhere to protect the rights of its community and the individuals within it,” his email reads.
“But we jeopardize our ability to make those arguments effectively, and may even put our DACA students at greater risk, if we suggest that our campus is beyond the law’s reach,” the email continued.
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Eisgruber reiterated that the basis of his decision lies in legal constraints.
“I don’t think there’s any useful application of the idea of sanctuary to universities.... it doesn’t clarify anything to use a concept that may wrongly suggest that somehow universities can insulate themselves from or exempt themselves from the application of law,” Eisgruber said.
He continued to say that the University will protect students to the maximum extent that the law allows.
“That means doing so on the basis of current policies, and that means looking for ways to improve those policies,” he said.
He noted that there have been not yet been concrete nation-wide policy changes to respond to, though he acknowledged the political rhetoric that sparked protest in the first place.
In the email, Eisgruber noted that the University does not release private information unless it is presented with a subpoena or comparably binding requirement.
When asked about under what circumstances the University would have to reveal information about undocumented students to law enforcement agents such as Immigration Customs and Enforcement, Eisgruber deferred comment to the University’s general counsel.
The Office of General Counsel could not be reached for comment as of press time.
The town of Princeton is currently designated as a sanctuary city. Formally proposed to the city council in late 2013, the current policy applies to the Princeton Police Department, and details their involvement in immigration-related operations.
According to a general order issued by Princeton Police Captain Nicholas Sutter, “Local police are not charged with the enforcement of federal immigration laws.” Additionally, the order states that Princeton Police will assist federal immigration authorities only “when requested,” and will limit involvement in raids to providing “a police presence outside in case of a disturbance or other public safety concern.”
Despite this initiative, there are still limitations on how detached local law enforcement can remain in many circumstances. For example, a 2007 directive issued by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office regulates the manner in which local officers are to interact with federal immigration authorities. In particular, it mandates that local police officers inquire about an arrestee’s citizenship status for any indictable offence and for driving while intoxicated. Sutter acknowledged these restrictions in a 2015 statement, noting “[The directive] doesn’t leave discretion up to the local authorities.”
Liz Lempert, Mayor of Princeton, has defended the designation of Princeton as a “sanctuary city,” despite harsh criticism. For example, the July 2015 shooting of Kathryn Steinle by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco drew national attention and provoked a response from Princeton residents who worried that the city’s policy might allow for the same kind of crime to occur. In the same statement as before, Lempert reiterated the benefits to local policing, noting that it is “important for people to feel safe to report crimes to the police and to know that the police are there to protect them.” She added that, while there are good and bad people in every population, “the police are there to protect the good people,” according to the statement.
However, Eisgruber said that there is little comparison to be made between the two institutions.
Eisgruber noted in the interview that he “has a lot of respect for what the town does,” but emphasized that the University and the town of Princeton are different kinds of institutions.
“We’re not a government, we are a private entity, and like all private entities, we are subject to law,” he said
“Both institutions are trying to pursue policies that are protective, within the limits of law, of the interests of undocumented persons, and in our case, of undocumented students,” he continued.
While explaining his beliefs in the email, Eisgruber cited his own experience as a constitutional scholar, the judgment of the consulted immigration lawyers, and the University’s commitment to the rule of law, which he called one of the country’s most basic principles.
In the email, Eisgruber highlighted actions outside of designating the University as a sanctuary campus that have been and will be taken by the University to safeguard the well-being of students, faculty, and staff members. Specifically, he noted his choice to sign a statement supporting DACA that now has over 300 signatories representing higher education institutions across the United States.
He expressed further support for DACA in the email, writing that ending DACA would be “a tragic mistake.” On a more personal note, he added that, as the child of immigrants and a scholar of religious minority rights, he was “deeply troubled by the hostility” displayed toward immigrants, Muslims, and other members of religious minorities. He added that he was pleased with the community’s response in “affirmation of the commitment to inclusivity,” and noted that he was happy to stand with members of the community in support of DACA and the rights of students, faculty, and staff.
In the interview, Eisgruber added that his commitment to the interests and desires of all students is heartfelt and personal. The choice to pursue other avenues of protection, he said in the interview, was motivated by a desire to do so in a way that “most effectively protects our students and most effectively stands for our values.”
This statement joins a rich history of perspectives on the status of the University and the municipality of Princeton as sanctuaries for immigrants.
While this history extends beyond the scope of recent events, many of these discussions took place after the U.S. Presidential Election on Nov. 8.
President-elect Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail to cut federal funding to cities claiming sanctuary city status, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. This, coupled with Trump’s post-election promise to deport two to three million undocumented immigrants, sparked vigorous debate at the University and across the nation on the assumed responsibility of communities to protect immigrant populations who could potentially become vulnerable under the new presidency.
On Nov. 17, members of the University community demonstrated in front of Nassau Hall calling for the University to designate itself a sanctuary campus.
In a statement released on Nov. 29, members of the Princeton DREAM Team, the group that organized the initial demonstration, responded to President Eisgruber’s email with further calls to action. In this statement, the DREAM Team clarified that it “was not suggesting that the University should place itself in a legal position that is superior to that of the rule of law.”
The group further acknowledged Eisgruber’s support of DACA, but warned that “not all undocumented Princetonians may be living under the DACA policy at this moment,” and that therefore “the commitment [to protecting members of the Princeton community] should extend to… those under DACA and those who are not, yet face imminent threats of deportation.” Additionally, the DREAM Team voiced its own commitment to the University community.
“DREAM Team is fully committed to working alongside President Eisgruber, Princeton University administrators, the Office of the General Counsel, as well as external legal counselors to ensure that the University fully exercises all legal powers it possesses to protect its students, faculty, and staff.”
The group also called on supporters to attend their next meeting, which is scheduled to occur on Dec. 8 at 8:30 p.m.