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  • Andrea Conteras and Briani Netzahuatl

The Search for Sanctuary

On creating community, by and for undocumented students.

By Andrea Contreras and Briani Netzahuatl

On a sunny October Saturday, Carelys stood on a grassy lawn on the edge of Central Park. She wasn’t far from her current home at the Park West Hotel, the most recent in a long string of impermanent living arrangements. Her two boys, aged nine and four, were throwing a football with a group of Columbia undergraduates, volunteers and co-directors of Students for Sanctuary, as Carelys spoke with a group of volunteers bringing materials and supplies to new migrant arrivals. She leans in and says that when she’s documented, she wants to study to be a lawyer or a judge to help people in her current situation, to do work like them:

Cuando tenga papeles, creo que me interesaría estudiar para ser abogada o jueza. Para ayudar a la gente en mi situación, hacer trabajo como ustedes.

Carelys is from Maracay, Venezuela, and arrived in the city two months ago from Texas with her husband and two children. She was one of thousands who had been bussed in from the southern border to New York after Texas Governor Greg Abbott began displacing migrants and asylum seekers ahead of a pivotal midterm election season. Carelys is one of around 8,000 migrant new arrivals who the city housed in hotels, including the Park West.

After a local community organizer alerted Students for Sanctuary that migrant families forced out of Texas were living just nine blocks from Columbia, the organization jumped to coordinate a welcome picnic for the new neighbors. That Saturday, students set up a table with lunch (from Roti Roll) and beverages for families. Students mingled with parents, chatting in Spanish—those who couldn’t converse spoke with their actions, smiling and offering more refreshments. They kicked around a soccer ball with children, who were laughing and catching their breath with frequent water breaks.

Students for Sanctuary’s role in coordinating the picnic hints at the variety of their organizing activities. “We’re working with a collective of people who live in the neighborhood, are invested in immigration justice and trying to make sure that we have our footing in our community,” said SFS codirector Alykhan Pirani, CC ’24. They organize clinics to train student volunteers to assist migrants in completing work permits, asylum applications, and fee waivers. Newer initiatives include coordinating student volunteers to serve as accompaniments for migrants, so they have support in situations like navigating the subway or getting to doctors appointments.

For many, the interest in Students for Sanctuary comes from a broad, personal passion for immigrant justice. Some, like Riley Zook, BC ’23, were involved in similar causes before coming to college. For Pirani and fellow director Karime Sanchez, CC ’23, their family’s immigration stories and their identities as students of color at Columbia drove their need to get involved. Codirector Jojo Rivera, BC ’23, is a DACA recipient from El Salvador.

Other volunteers with Students for Sanctuary have personal stakes in the issue. Undocumented students at Columbia see the organization as more than just a volunteering coordinator—to them, it is a space through which they can connect to this part of their identity. Metzli Nieves, BC ’22, was an undocumented student when the organization was first founded in 2018. When she first became an interpreter for Students for Sanctuary, she describes how “in a way, [I] saw my family and saw my own experience in these individuals seeking a better life and seeking a permanent space that they can call home because of whatever reason they couldn’t return home.” Many undocumented students involved in the organization feel the same way today. Alex, CC ’24, describes seeing herself in the families she volunteers with. “You feel like there’s still something happening if you are even able to help another person in that situation, even if you can’t help yourself.” (Alex is a pseudonym).

Students for Sanctuary confronts those bureaucratic challenges that come with being affiliated with the University, but their frustrations are heightened because the club is composed largely of undocumented students. The presence of children at the picnic raised the question of minor training, which requires background checks that presented concerns for undocumented students. The looming presence of the University and its various administrative pressures is exacerbated by the fact that, for the 2022–2023 school year, Students for Sanctuary received a mere $550 allocation from the University for their work, making it difficult to coordinate anything on their own.

Such difficulties feel incongruous with the University’s self-identification in 2016 as a “sanctuary campus,” thereby positioning itself publicly as an ally to undocumented people. After Trump won a campaign predicated upon an antagonism to migrants, students organized petitions and a walkout to demand stronger protections for undocumented students. Soon after, President Bollinger and then-Provost John Coatsworth released a statement barring immigration officials from campus without a warrant, withholding student information from officials unless subpoenaed, and assuring that undocumented students would be provided additional financial aid and support in the event DACA was repealed. “The experience of undocumented students at the College and Columbia Engineering, from the time they first seek admission through their graduation, will not be burdened in any way by their undocumented status,” read Coatsworth’s email. At the time, Columbia’s stance was widely praised for being groundbreakingly bold and progressive. While many undocumented students were unaware of Columbia’s “sanctuary school” status at the time they applied, the University marketed itself as an accessible place.

Illustration by Lolo Dederer

For many undocumented young people, college becomes the first site through which they come to form an undocumented consciousness. Growing up, many Latine undocumented students recall their conceptions of legal statuses revolving around not having papeles, or papers. “All I knew as a six-year-old was that I just didn’t have this paper my parents always talked about,” Nieves said. It was not until she was in high school and beginning to think about college that she realized what papeles were and how they framed her circumstances. Alex experienced a similar reckoning with her status as she learned that her lack of papeles affected her educational future beyond some sanctions on her driver’s license, as the list of universities she could apply to was limited by her status. This awareness was heightened when Trump threatened to terminate DACA upon election. He followed through in the summer of 2017, leaving thousands of requests and applications in limbo for new DREAMers and those awaiting renewal.

Once at Columbia, students feel that the University’s policies provide relief from many challenges: Considerable financial support and assurance of safety from deportation and physical threat have gone a long way. All undocumented students we spoke with expressed a certain gratitude to Columbia for its provisions of safety and opportunities for upward mobility.

Nieves was awarded a full-ride scholarship for undocumented students—the only recipient in her incoming year. But the aid did not mean her time at Barnard was easy. “There’s a misconception that just because you get a full ride, that’s it, all your problems are solved and you’re good to go,” she said. Upon first coming into the University in 2018, as Barnard was adjusting to the institutional changes for accommodating DACA recipients, Nieves felt a noticeable lack of support from administration, which left undocumented students feeling “like an afterthought.”

Even past the school’s adjustment period, Alex and Brian, CC ’24, struggled receiving support. Brian, who requested to go by his first name, recalled going home for the first time, having his family interrogate him about why the University wasn’t helping him beyond allowing him to attend, asking questions like

¿Pero y tú no vas a Columbia? ¿Cómo no vas a tener papeles?

Don’t you go to Columbia? How are you not going to receive documents?

Of course, he knew it wasn’t that simple—politics, as well as the particulars of his status, was not something the University had full control over. But Brian’s family made him consider the fact that Columbia had the resources to equip him with a lawyer, to help him apply for citizenship on his own or uncork his family’s frozen asylum case. The fear of graduation and what would come after was prominent. “I don’t want to come in undocumented and scared and then leave undocumented and scared. Yes, I was [at] a sanctuary school for four years, now I’ve left my sanctuary: Now what am I going to do?” He sought out support from the international students website, which touts various pro-bono legal resources. But Brian is not an international student, despite the fact that he is considered one on paper for his grant money. Lawyers were unable to help him, and the experience of seeking out help completely on his own only to find dead ends left him feeling drained and frustrated. “I just got sick of it,” Brian said.

Alex is still working with her lawyer in her home state, bypassing Columbia altogether when seeking help getting legalization. Her past attempts to use University resources when experiencing academic challenges left her feeling that requesting legal aid through the University would be as futile. Both Brian and Alex found their pursuits of jobs, academic positions, grants, internships, and other opportunities accommodating of their undocumented statuses were next to impossible, especially with no designated advisors or pages geared for them. (Students recalled that in 2016, they were told they could speak to Senior Associate Vice President for Student Life Ixchel Rosal in her capacity as an undocumented student advisor.) The grants that they do have, such as Alex’s stipend for books, are not disbursed on time, if at all. “With Columbia administration, I am constantly having to fight with them to make sure that I am being helped in the way that I should be helped for my situation,” said Alex.

In marketing itself as a sanctuary school, the administration may have expected undocumented students to feel comfortable enough approaching student life offices if they needed help. But that dangling “if” shows a lack of understanding for the population Columbia claims to serve. For those who grew up being told that papeles are an intimate matter, approaching random administrators to speak openly about their experience is an unimaginable task. As Nieves articulated, “When you’re dealing with such sensitive and vulnerable populations, you have to build a strong foundation of trust first.”

Before even attempting to navigate institutional processes, undocumented students are trying to comprehend their own identities. It was within the context of Columbia, of understanding their unique position relative to their peers, that many came to see themselves as holding an undocumented identity, which for many was just as strong as their identities as students of color, or as first-gen, low income, queer, or Black. Undocumented students are visible and active in student groups that revolve around these identities; they show up to Alianza and dance for Sabor, they go to the Black student formal and share a table at FGLI dinners. Columbia’s robust and well-resourced Office of Multicultural Affairs advertises these community spaces proudly, upholding their commitment to diversity and inclusion for underrepresented groups. Absent from the Multicultural Affairs Office is a section for undocumented students. “Columbia doesn’t make a space for us the way they do for these other groups.” Brian said. Alex agreed: “It seems like they pick and choose what identities that they think are most important and that are considered underrepresented.” Nieves was asked not to publicly advertise her undocumented status during her time at Barnard.

Lack of visibility has real consequences for undocumented students and their feelings of belonging and validity within a campus. It’s been imprinted in their classmates too, in the way that they speak about undocumented people as abstracted beings, far removed from their immediate community. Nieves remembered hearing migrant communities spoken about in the classroom for the first time: To her, it was “such a bizarre feeling cause you feel like they talk about it like it’s so far away, like it’s this thing that’s not existent in the classroom.” Coming from a predominantly Latine community in the Bronx meant that Nieves had never previously experienced that her status could create such distance from the people around her. “They’re talking like if nobody in this room could have possibly been going through this situation,” agreed Alex.

In 2016, Columbia and Barnard students took matters into their own hands to build community spaces for themselves. One of those spaces was UndoCU, founded in collaboration with the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a nonprofit led by immigrant youth. Before the club became inactive in 2021, Nieves counted among UndoCU’s undocumented general body members. In its first few years, the organization organized a college application and access clinic for local high school students and outspokenly addressed institutional failings. Vocal support for other antiracist organizing on campus accompanied their own direct action work: a massive divestment campaign urging Columbia to cut off its ties with Border Patrol and presenting a comprehensive list of demands to the University regarding better legal assistance, anti-racism initiatives, outreach practices, communication between undocumented students, specialized fundraising, and correcting housing and financial difficulties. UndoCU’s initiatives were predominantly built on intersectional resistance, leading them to choose not to affiliate with the University and to seek funding only through donations.

Columbia did not acknowledge or meet any of UndoCU’s demands, and now, the organization does not exist. The only other organization dedicated to the undocumented community, Students for Sanctuary, is all that remains.

The codirectors recognized this gap in on-campus community space, acknowledging their desire to direct some of their efforts inwardly as well. “A lot of our work has been focused on sanctuary, from us to our friends. Recognizing that there’s a lot of undocumented students on campus that we could also help organize, like if we can mobilize resources that the University won’t, we can do it,” Pirani, CC ’24, said. From their perspective, Students for Sanctuary is stepping in where Columbia steps out, both in the larger undocumented community outside its gates and within them.

Columbia prefers to maintain an arms-length distance from the undocumented community. In 2016, their sanctuary campus position may have been enough for the national political landscape, but initial praise for their stance has since worn off. The lack of attention does not erase the fact that the undocumented community is much more proximate than it seems.

Right next to the Manhattanville campus, a Cayuga Center on 125th houses unaccompanied migrant children. The new arrivals from the Sanctuary picnic are just a few blocks away. And they’re here on campus—cheering at homecoming, taking political science classes, protesting against the institution, participating in Columbia’s famed activist culture. To undocumented students, sanctuary is more than the promise of safety—it’s the desire to be able to be just like every other student.


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