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Letter to the Editor: Now, more than ever, words matter

Last Monday, President Eisgruber circulated a letter to the Princeton community in which he affirmed his and the University’s support of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program and those members of our community currently protected under it. This support was hedged by the qualification “to the maximum extent that the law allows.” The letter cites scrupulous adherence to the rule of law as justification for why Princeton will not embrace the call to make the University a “sanctuary campus.”

Yesterday the ‘Prince’ published Jessica Sarriot’s criticism of the President’s letter. I am in full agreement with Jessica’s words and write now to express my conviction that the President’s letter simply does not rise to the challenges of the present moment. Not only is the letter ultimately complicit in the very rule of law problem it identifies; it represents a failure of moral imagination, for reasons I will set out in a moment.


Before doing so, I need to make my subject position crystal clear. In my previous incarnation as a Princeton undergraduate, I was an undocumented immigrant. On my journey to legal status, I was staggeringly fortunate to receive support from many members of the University community. Rejoining Princeton as a member of the faculty this fall, I’ve had an opportunity to incur still more debts—all while my long-term immigration status hangs in the balance, despite everyone’s best efforts.

It is both this sense of indebtedness and my belief in constructive criticism as the sincerest expression of gratitude that have emboldened me to write in response to President Eisgruber. While I find the letter concerning on a number of fronts, the single most disillusioning aspect is President Eisgruber’s appeal to the rule of law “in this uncertain and contentious time.” When it is very likely that the law and its machinery will be wielded as weapons against the most vulnerable, it is myopic if not craven to insist on dutiful obedience. Rigorous comportment with what one believes on the advice of legal experts to be the law will come as little consolation to those now in the sights of the incoming administration and its cadre of appointees — quite a few of whom have made on-the-record proposals to deploy the legal system against those already on the violent end of structural oppression.

To approach the targeting of the undocumented as merely a legal matter is to miss the point. I object in principle to the elevation of the rule of law above other values; it is a travesty of humanistic education to glorify the law over considerations of justice and mercy. The rule of law is not equivalent to or coterminous with “respect for the rights of others”; President Eisgruber is undoubtedly aware that laws can perpetrate gross forms of injustice. While I appreciate the concern that we “may even put our DACA students at greater risk” by “suggest[ing] that our campus is beyond the law’s reach,” those of us who are convinced that not all laws, but only just laws, are worth promoting and defending recognize that we will be called to perform acts that rise above — or transgress — narrowly legalistic commitments. In any event, the University community needs to have a robust conversation about what it would mean to offer sanctuary. Even if the concept “has no basis in law,” Princeton’s designation as a “sanctuary” campus would be an exceptionally potent speech-act, rendered all the more potent by Princeton’s national and international profile. Now, more than ever, words matter: not the words carefully scripted so as to remain on the right side of the law, but words that, by espousing and championing a moral vision, will offer visible sustenance to those potentially or actually under assault.

Of course, soaring words will not do all the work; as students at Wesleyan recently stated in response to their president’s community message, “performative solidarity is not enough, nor has it ever been.” Last Monday’s letter was remarkable for its studied ambiguity. Beyond reiterating the University’s determination not to reveal private information to law enforcement officers except when presented with a subpoena or warrant, President Eisgruber’s letter offered little indication of the specific material support the University will provide to undocumented students. If DACA is rescinded, will the University offer additional financial support to affected students? Legal representation?

This is all to say that the President’s letter, considered and heartfelt though it is, struck this reader as inadequate to the full range of values enshrined in the University’s mission. The spirit of the law, not the letter, is what gives life.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta is an assistant professor of Classics and a faculty affiliate of the Program in Latino Studies. He can be reached at