To President Eisgruber,
I am writing in response to the mass email you sent to the student body on Monday regarding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). In that email you expressed a sense of personal empathy with undocumented students on campus who would be vulnerable to economic instability, emotional trauma, deportation, and potentially death under the new anti-immigrant administration that will come to power in January. You shared that, despite it not being a regular practice, you had signed on to a letter supporting DACA as a policy, and you shared your family history and deep convictions for the importance of respecting religious minorities and inclusion. I honor that intention and appreciate that stepping outside of your habit to sign a joint letter took some moral courage.
You are going to need a great deal more courage going forward, if you are sincere in your desire to show principled leadership in a time when civil rights and the inherent human dignity of some of your students is and will be in question. We will all need to become more courageous. To do that we will need to understand the legacies and works of those whose footsteps we are following and understand clearly what our self-interest is.
Your email asserts that the “Sanctuary” status that you have been asked to bestow upon Princeton for DACA students has no “basis in law”, and you insist that your and Princeton’s greatest loyalty should be to a “commitment to the rule of law.”
Yet I need not remind a constitutional scholar that almost every one of our best laws in this country — universal suffrage, civil rights, labor law, and indeed our very Constitution — came from individuals and organizations issuing a clear and definitive rebuke to a status quo, or a law, that their convictions would not allow them to support; and who then acted, and assumed the consequences of those actions.
We need not go as far back as Alexander Hamilton to find examples of this type of behavior. We can look to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the leader of this umbrella labor union, John L. Lewis. Lewis wrestled politically with President Woodrow Wilson and supported national strikes in favor of labor rights. Another example comes from NAACP members and activists Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ella Baker, who put their bodies on the line to remind our nation that, “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Alexander de Tocqueville was impressed with American democracy, not because of the righteousness or sacredness of our laws, or our respect for rule of law, but because we had a robust enough voluntary sector that we stood a fighting chance of keeping both governmental and corporate sectors in check, if and when those sectors sought to oppress their constituents or clients.
President Eisgruber, as the head of a nonprofit educational institution, you are part of that third sector. The responsibility of keeping the government in check falls partly to us.
Let us not get confused and think that it is our role to protect the underlying structures of government, regardless of what those structures are. We are the force that is meant to push, shift, and form those structures. The third sector is not concerned with maximizing profits or winning elections: it must hold the line of seeking the public good and speaking and acting for justice. That must be the self-interest that we are firmly grounded in.
We can be hopeful because we have seen principled resistance to unjust laws, leaders and structures bear fruit in the past. And yet, hesitance and fear are understandable as well.
I am not here to tell you that if Princeton were to choose to declare itself a sanctuary campus and if, God forbid, the U.S. government should take it upon itself to hunt down former DACA students in deportation raids over the coming years, that you would not have some very difficult decisions to make. Indeed, many of us, yourself included, might have to decide whether our stability, economic certainty, and even freedom, are sacrifices we may be asked to make in order to stand up for our values and deepest held beliefs in the humanity of all.
That is why it takes courage.
Signing a letter,just as writing this letter, takes some familiarity with writing and a bit of time. Real courage, moral courage, often requires at least making oneself vulnerable to sacrifice and risk.
As white middle- and upper-income professionals, it’s important we remember that our sacrifices will always pale in comparison to those others will have to make. Our privilege provides protection; hopefully, that protection emboldens us to act rather than paralyze us with the fear of losing it.
In my previous work as a community organizer, our working definition of power was simply “organized people and organized money.” Princeton has an incredible amount of well-organized money. We are working on organizing its people. We are a powerful institution. If we have enough moral courage to put that power to the service of protecting our values, rather than simply abiding by whatever status quo is thrown our way, we could have the opportunity to have a historic impact in this country.
Misunderstanding our position, being so risk-averse as to be morally cowardly, and wasting the opportunity to be a force for justice would be the real “tragic mistake.”
Be courageous, President Eisgruber.
We will have your back when you do.
Jessica Sarriot is a Master in Public Affairs Graduate Student in the Woodrow Wilson School from Paris, France. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org