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A petition urging Baylor University leaders to make the school a “sanctuary campus” had gained over 1,200 signatures by Friday afternoon.

Staff photo— Rod Aydelotte, file

President Donald Trump’s targeting of refugees and unauthorized immigrants — through campaign rhetoric and executive orders — has sparked a nationwide conversation of “sanctuary” status.

And as campuses debate how best to respond to immigration agency queries, a group of Baylor University graduate students proposed a plan for the world’s largest Baptist university.

A recently begun petition addressed to high-ranking administrators asks Baylor to declare itself a sanctuary campus “that will refuse to comply with immigration investigations or deportations to the fullest extent possible, including denying access to university property.”

The petition, started Monday, had garnered over 1,200 signatures by Friday afternoon, including those of Baylor professors, students and alumni, local pastors and Waco residents.

The petition asks Baylor to condemn Trump’s executive orders on immigration, citing incompatibilities with the school’s Christian commitment.

Information regarding immigration status of students, scholars and community members should be protected from any enforcement agency, the petition says.

The co-authors, a group of graduate students in the department of religion, say the petition is rooted in the very theology Baylor claims.

“There’s general agreement on what holy Scripture says: to love and not to oppress the stranger,” said Nicholas Krause, 27. “The question is, will those teachings be merely ideals or private commitments? Or will we give public expression to them, and will we order our institutional life according to those teachings? I’m pretty confident the administration shares the commitment to see our common life ordered on those things.”

The petition is addressed to interim President David Garland, Executive Vice President and Provost L. Gregory Jones, Vice President for Student Life Kevin Jackson and Vice Provost for Global Engagement Jeffrey Hamilton.

In the wake of Trump’s executive order temporarily barring people from seven countries from entering the United States, the four administrators released a statement saying Baylor officials made personal contact with people with ties to the seven predominantly Muslim countries listed in Trump’s order.

A federal appeals court on Thursday rejected that order, meaning the travel ban remains blocked.

Hamilton said he met with international students to discuss the order, provide up-to-date information and to keep communication lines open.

In response to the petition, a university statement said the school appreciates the support and encouragement of the community for those affected.

The statement also said Garland hosted a lunch at his home for Baylor students and scholars from the impacted countries.

“The Center for Global Engagement and University officials are closely monitoring the situation and will continue to provide personal guidance, support and encouragement for our students, staff and faculty who are impacted directly,” the statement said.

However, the university’s statement didn’t indicate Baylor’s position on the possibility of becoming a sanctuary campus. It did acknowledge the petition by stating that “the university is aware of the sanctuary petition and fully appreciates the strong support and encouragement of the campus community for our students and scholars who have been impacted by the recent executive order.”

Professors’ support

Though Baylor has not committed to becoming a sanctuary campus, one of the petition’s co-authors, Laura Lysen, said professors have shown overwhelming support for the petition and she is encouraged by the university’s statements so far.

“Certainly, the kinds of work we do with (faculty) and the things that they care about have prepared us to be theologically formed in such a way that (the petition) was a natural step for us,” said Lysen, 30.

She said people should examine the way the Trump administration describes refugees and immigrants and question if the statements are true based on history, policy and economic reality.

“If we can’t bring those questions to the table, we’re going to stay in this split, where we’re not even able to find each other,” she said.

Laura Hernandez, a Baylor Law School professor, said the petition in no way asks Baylor to break any law.

One’s presence at a university is not tied to citizenship status, she said, and the petition asks that Baylor not affirmatively ascertain that information and immediately turn it over to immigration agencies.

“That is increasingly the tone that is being set by the new administration and some of these executive orders,” Hernandez said. “They’re trying to turn lots of institutions into private immigration enforcers. That’s very unusual.”

The petition says Baylor should create an office with access to free legal counsel for non-citizen students and increase financial aid for such students.

It also asks Baylor to create a scholarship program for displaced students, with preference to those from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — the seven countries specified in Trump’s order — as well as to partner with other institutions to defend rights of non-citizens.

Krause said the issue of what it means to be a Christian institution of higher learning is an ongoing conversation at Baylor.

“Part of what that entails for all us, I think, is thinking about how we structure our university life together, such that it reflects what we believe, morally and theologically,” he said. “We approached the petition in that kind of light, as a cooperative effort between us who study theology and the administration, who seeks to embody the theology in the institutions, and try to figure out what it might look like for what we take to be essential Christian claims about sanctuary, refugees and migration, and put it into concrete practice.”

Phillip has covered higher education for the Tribune-Herald since November 2015.

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