Pa. lawmaker proposes cutting state funds for ‘sanctuary campuses’

Listen
 Students walk out to demand Swarthmore College become a sanctuary campus. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Students walk out to demand Swarthmore College become a sanctuary campus. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A Pennsylvania lawmaker is pushing back against “sanctuary campuses” — colleges and universities refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities to protect undocumented students.

State Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill, is planning to introduce a bill that would cut off state funding to those schools.

“This is not at all to punish the kids,” Knowles said. “This is to tell presidents and administrators of any university that gets money from the commonwealth that they need to understand that I believe that they have an obligation to comply with federal law.”

Only two institutions in Pennsylvania have declared themselves sanctuary campuses: the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College, which are both private. Both institutions have said they will not allow U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement on campus without a warrant or share information about their students’ immigration status. They are also taking other steps to protect undocumented students in preparation for stricter immigration policies under President-elect Donald Trump.

Knowles’ bill could put at risk millions of state dollars for the University of Pennylvania’s veterinary school. A representative of the university did not respond to a request for comment. 

Federal officials rarely carry out immigration law enforcement at schools as a matter of policy. Still, the “sanctuary campus” movement has grown out of fear Trump will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program.

President Obama created the program in 2012 by executive order to allow young people brought into the country illegally as children to study and work in the U.S. temporarily. DACA has benefited more than 5,100 undocumented students in Pennsylvania. Trump has vowed to repeal many of Obama’s executive orders after his inauguration next month.

While some state-sponsored colleges and universities, including Temple and Penn State, have signed a nationwide petition supporting DACA, none of the 14 institutions in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education have done so. 

Knowles would not say whether he thinks the program should stay or go under the Trump administration. He insisted that the president-elect’s stance on DACA was a federal, not a state issue and unrelated to the issue of college and university administrators’ refusal to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

“Illegal is illegal,” Knowles said. “How they deal with those kids — I’m sure they’re going to do it in a fair manner.

“I think you have a liberal faction deliberately doing what they’re doing to stir things up and aggravate and agitate people,” he said.

Knowles plans to introduce the bill in the next legislative session and claims he has more than two-dozen bipartisan co-sponsors.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.