We would be among the first to say that some of the reaction to Donald Trump's victory on college campuses has been a little overwrought. Cornell held a cry-in. The University of Texas-Austin student government set up a "therapy wall" for students upset at the election's outcome. A dorm at the University of Pennsylvania — Mr. Trump's alma mater — created a "breathing space" replete with cats and a puppy.
But the talk of creating sanctuary policies on campus, as a number of higher education institutions in Maryland and elsewhere have done, is another matter. This isn't about "campus crybabies," as some conservative critics have called the distraught millennials. It is about real concern on the part of undocumented immigrant students about whether the president-elect's promises to massively step-up deportation efforts could wind up targeting them. They would, after all, be easy to find.
Public elementary and secondary schools do not, as a matter of routine, know whether their students are in the country legally or not. They are bound by a 1982 Supreme Court decision to provide an education regardless of legal status, so they don't ask. But particularly as students approach college age, their immigration status becomes an issue.
Some have effectively announced their presence to the federal government by applying to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which President Barack Obama established by executive order in 2012 — and which Mr. Trump has suggested he will reverse. Current DACA guidelines include some measure of protection to assure those who apply and are otherwise law-abiding that their information will not be shared with immigration enforcement officials, but that, too, could change if Mr. Trump wishes.
Others have effectively informed the colleges or universities they attend that they lack legal status. In 2012, Marylanders voted 59 percent to 41 percent to uphold a law allowing certain undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. In order to receive the benefit, students have to demonstrate that they meet certain criteria — they must have graduated from a Maryland high school, their parents must have paid income taxes for a period of time, they must have completed a certain amount of coursework at a community college, etc. They fill out a form provided by the University System of Maryland and submit it to the institution they plan to attend. Privacy protections for student records would generally prevent institutions from sharing that information with immigration officials, but under the circumstances, it is more than appropriate for college presidents to remind students of that rule and assure them that it will be followed.
A number of campus leaders in Maryland have done so in recent weeks, and some schools have reiterated the university system's policies against voluntarily partnering with immigration authorities on enforcement actions or providing student records for such actions. (They would, of course, have to do so if immigration officials had a warrant, subpoena or other court order.)
It's not clear how aggressively Mr. Trump intends to pursue deportations. Talk of deportation patrols going after all 11 million people in the country illegally has morphed post-election to immediately deporting the 2 million to 3 million people Mr. Trump claims have no legal status and "have criminal records — gang members, drug dealers, we have a lot of these people." But that statement served to confuse the issue more, as the Department of Homeland Security estimated a few years ago that there were 1.9 million "removable criminal aliens" in the country, and that includes people with legal status. Nor did Mr. Trump offer much guidance for what would later happen to the "terrific people" who aren't deported in the initial wave.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's foray into the issue this week was probably more symbolic than substantive — the Democrat said he had ordered county police not to assist in efforts "to identify otherwise law-abiding students from our college campuses that would subject them to deportation by federal authorities," but the involvement of local law enforcement in immigration is generally quite limited. Only two local law enforcement agencies in Maryland have entered into memorandums of understanding with federal officials to enforce immigration laws, and Baltimore County's police department is not among them.
Even so, there is value in the county executive making such a public pronouncement. It helps reinforce the idea that local police are there to protect public safety, not to enforce immigration laws, a crucial distinction without which many immigrants (documented or not) would be reluctant to cooperate in investigations or to come forward when they are victims of crime. If anything, Mr. Kamenetz should have gone further and not limited his statement to students on college campuses but applied it to immigrants in Baltimore County generally.
Was there a hint of politics in Mr. Kamenetz's challenge for Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, to join him in reassuring immigrant students? Sure. But this state voted clearly and convincingly four years ago to provide benefits for immigrant college students without legal status, and it's important for leaders on campus and beyond to reiterate that commitment.