Trustees | Academic Prioritization

Where is the campus debate on immigration?

THE HILL   |  January 28, 2021 by Chance Layton

On the policy issue of immigration, as with so many others, many of our colleges and universities have forgone their public duty to give students the opportunity to research and learn. Instead, much of the higher education establishment speaks with one voice, stifling debate.

The new orthodoxy did not always exist. In 2005, future president Barack Obama took to the Senate floor to chastise Congress for allowing “people to pour into the U.S. undetected, undocumented and unchecked.” Then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) supported a 2006 bill that would have added 700 miles of additional fencing to our southern border. The last time Biden found himself in the White House as vice president, he was present for the deportation of over 3 million immigrants from America.

In 2018, then-University of California President Janet Napolitano led higher education’s charge against President Trump’s 2017 recission of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California argued that the recission of DACA violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and was motivated by discriminatory animus.

Just nine years earlier, as secretary of Homeland Security, Napolitano led Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through the largest deportation in our nation’s history.

A new report by University of Maryland Baltimore County professor George R. La Noue, titled “Rebalancing the Narrative” and published by the National Association of Scholars, details how America’s immigration debate has shifted over the past decade and why universities have picked a side while suffocating dissent. Once upon a time on campuses, research and debate on immigration were commonplace: Who benefits? What externalities? What about national security? What about our humanity?

These questions have all but disappeared from campuses as many colleges and universities largely have moved into lockstep with the Democratic Party.

A debate at Seattle University School of Law in 2018, sponsored by the student chapter of The Federalist Society and co-hosted by the School’s Access to Justice Institute, was nearly canceled after some students worried that the debate “would create dialogue that might make some … students [feel] unsafe or unwelcome.” Although the debate did go on, the law school withdrew its support for the debate, which included both liberal and conservative speakers, explaining that “discussions of immigration policy that include a conservative viewpoint [are] even more painful and anxiety- and anger-producing” because of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

Worse, higher education, for all its appeals to high-minded ideals about immigration, may have apparent conflicts of interest. Last year, the Department of Education reported that America’s colleges and universities failed to disclose $6.5 billion in funding from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Some of these are geopolitical rivals; all have been accused of abusing human rights.

Yet, America’s higher education establishment continues to demand unrestricted access to foreign capital. In November, the American Council on Education (ACE), along with 46 other signatories, penned a letter to President-elect Biden demanding that enforcement of Section 117 of the Higher Education Act cease.

Foreign students can represent easy money for colleges that recruit them. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, college finances were buoyed by the full tuition that foreign students pay. Any government policy that threatened to slow or stop that flow could be a threat to the increasingly endangered American university.  

By pushing the immigration debate out of the Overton window, America’s colleges and universities may have ensured their survival. But at what cost? Shouldn’t students have access to professors and classes that actively debate immigration policy? Shouldn’t universities encourage our students and professors to research the benefits and detriments of America’s immigration laws?

Thankfully, we know that hosting campus debates on contentious policy issues is not impossible. Just this past year, Arizona State University (ASU) sponsored a debate on building the southern border wall. One of the co-sponsors, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), reported that many students stayed well into the night to continue their discussions. As it turns out, a diversity of ideas can exist on a campus, given the opportunity.

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