Divergent Pathways Towards Sanctuary in Amherst, Massachusetts

Ana Vieytez and Gaby Bucio | December 2020

The Sanctuary Movement has, from its inception, been an act of defiance against perceived unjust laws and practices. The act of seeking sanctuary has always been a desperate attempt to save the spirit of hospitality in the United States from hate. This sense of desperation behind the Sanctuary Movement was exacerbated by the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016. Many places of worship, towns, and campuses quickly reacted to the Trump administration’s promises of harsher immigration policies by pushing for sanctuary status. However, as the cases of the Town of Amherst, Massachusetts and Amherst College prove, the results of sanctuary demands, despite popular support, are contingent upon the power structures of institutions. The community-based approach of the Amherst Town Council strikingly contrasts the hierarchical structure of the liberal arts college, where decisions are ultimately made by a select, powerful few. These dynamics ultimately resulted in the adoption of sanctuary status by the town but few changes to policy, and a denial of sanctuary status by the college but more expressed support for undocumented and DACA students.

Is the Town of Amherst A Sanctuary?

The election of President Donald Trump caused concern across the nation for the safety of undocumented immigrants. Amherst was no exception. Though Amherst is generally understood to be a liberal, immigrant-welcoming community, debates about whether the town should make an official declaration of sanctuary abounded.

First of all, not everyone agreed on what it actually meant to declare the town a sanctuary and what tangible effect an official declaration would have on police enforcement in Amherst. The public sanctuary debate in Amherst came to a head in January 2017 when a citizen petition in favor of the move began circulating. This, however, wasn’t the first time that there was talk in the town about the extent of police involvement in the apprehension of undocumented immigrants. In 2012, a resolution discussed over the course of several town meetings and passed on May 21 stated:

“The Town of Amherst and its officials and employees, to the extent permissible by law, shall not participate in federal law enforcement programs relating to immigration enforcement, including but not limited to, Secure Communities, and cooperative agreements with the federal government under which town personnel participate in the enforcement of immigration laws.” 

On May 8, 2018, another Amherst Town Meeting approved the passage of the Amherst Sanctuary Community Bylaw with a 165-4 vote. The bylaw “ensures that Amherst police don’t participate in federal immigration enforcement activities, including participation in inquiries, investigations, raids, arrests or detentions that are based solely on immigration status.” However, the bylaw is explicit in the fact that it does not support or promote any breaking of federal law by local police enforcement. Chief of Police Scott Livingston said that the bylaw would make no significant change to police enforcement operations. 

So then why become a sanctuary community? According to law professor Michael Kagan, municipal declarations of sanctuary are generally “acts of resistance” to anti-immigrant federal policy; however, Kagan notes that sanctuary city policies, though aimed at non-compliance with ICE, struggle to make clear how they will actually achieve this goal in practice. Further, Kagan argues that city declarations of sanctuary can be misleading in that they intend and claim to be actively resistant to ICE in a very public facing manner but often lack the power in terms of policy to live up to this claim.

Based on what we know about the Amherst Community Sanctuary Bylaw, it is possible that such a gap between intent and practice exists. Whether or not Amherst’s sanctuary bylaw holds much legal weight, it remains a strong representation of the community’s desire to publicly reject anti-immigrant policies, harnessing instead the rhetorical power of the ancient tradition of sanctuary to make clear the community’s commitment of protecting undocumented people.

Amherst College is Not a Sanctuary Campus, But One of Its Chapels is:

Within the town of Amherst another movement in favor of sanctuary sparked as a response to the election of Donald Trump. On November 16, 2016, Amherst College students organized a rally in support of a sanctuary campus declaration. This move by Amherst students is only one instance of student mobilization for the Sanctuary Movement, which has exploded across the United States, with over 200 hundred colleges and universities facing sanctuary-campus petitions. The students at Amherst College presented a letter to President Biddy Martin that asked for the college’s refusal to share information with ICE, greater support for undocumented and DACA students, restriction of ICE’s physical presence on campus, and prohibition of the campus police inquiring about students’ immigration status, as well as divestment from private prisons/detention center businesses. In other words, the students advocated for a sanctuary campus pledge that went beyond restricting the access to students’ legal-status information.

The administration released a complete response to the student demands on November 28th which revealed the impediments for a sanctuary campus — though it did not explicitly use those terms. Amherst College administration reasoned that the college already provided support for undocumented and DACA students, did not share information with federal law enforcement agencies, and did not have direct investments in private prison/detention facilities in its endowment. What students found troubling, however, was the college’s insistence that it cannot restrict access to ICE because of its open-access campus.

Perhaps the administration’s response, which appears to effectively decline sanctuary campus status, may later be revised. Law professors Rose Cuison Villazor and Pratheepan Gulasekaram argue that “a university is in a unique position to provide protection for undocumented students in ways that differ from, and are arguably stronger than, sanctuary cities or churches and other private groups.” Their argument stems from a court-afforded discretion to universities regarding who enters their physical spaces and Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act regulations, which can serve to protect the identity of undocumented students. According to this interpretation, then, Amherst College has the possibility of becoming a sanctuary campus, but has chosen otherwise.

Nonetheless, the tradition of sanctuary has maintained a presence on the Amherst College campus. Religious leaders on campus chose to consecrate Chapin Chapel as a refuge for undocumented immigrants. This, however, is not an endorsement of sanctuary by the school. According to Laura Krantz from the Boston Globe, “College officials on Wednesday said the event was organized by private multifaith religious advisors who use the chapel, not by the college. Nevertheless, the school’s president has been vocal about her support for undocumented students.”

Chapin Chapel, smaller than the main campus chapel, Johnson Chapel, is situated next to the Religion Department’s study lounge in the center of the building that houses the History and Latinx and Latin American Studies departments — an appropriate place for a reminder of the tradition and application of sanctuary in the United States. The move to privately consecrate a chapel reflects the importance of physical spaces dedicated to protection along with policies and symbolic gestures. Former UC Davis Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and current President of San Diego State University Adela de la Torre, speaking about the AB540 and Undocumented Student Center at her school, expressed the belief that “when you see the physical space, it creates a reaction, whether it’s positive, negative or neutral. It creates a meaningful dialogue for faculty and visitors who are polarized on this issue and a compelling narrative of why it’s needed.” Similarly, though on a much smaller scale, the consecration of the Chapin Chapel is meant to remind students, especially undocumented students, that they have a support system on campus that aims to protect them from harsh policies enacted by the federal government.

While the Town of Amherst and Amherst College both saw popular responses to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric in the form of pushes for sanctuary, we have a lot to learn from the distinct ways each case played out.

 At Amherst College, a private institution, community desire to become a sanctuary campus ultimately failed to outweigh the administration’s own reservations. On the other hand, the Town of Amherst declared sanctuary through a democratic voting process, resulting in a stronger and more direct community influence. Though strong popular support mobilized calls for sanctuary in both cases, we can observe divergent pathways towards sanctuary in Amherst.