The concept of a "sanctuary campus" -- a safe space for immigrants seeking higher education -- isn't new. But with the election of Donald Trump, who pledged to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, it's sparking more debates and uncertainty in colleges across the country.

In the past month, students at more than 100 universities circulated petitions to establish their schools as sanctuary campuses. Their push, though, comes amid federal and state Republicans' promises to defund sanctuary campuses.

The dilemma leaves universities grappling with how to address immigrant students' concerns in a way that doesn’t invite legal action or threaten their funding.

Most of the talk surrounding sanctuaries is usually around cities. More than 300 municipalities -- dozens of which have repledged their resistance since the election -- have instructed their local law enforcement to not cooperate with federal immigration officials in finding, apprehending and deporting undocumented immigrants. The federal practice may violate the Fourth Amendment, according to a 2014 court ruling.

When students at Texas State University petitioned their administrators, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott warned that he would financially punish any school that becomes a sanctuary.

“Texas will not tolerate sanctuary campuses or cities,” he wrote on Twitter. “I will cut funding for any state campus if it establishes sanctuary status.”

His threat may be working because none of the state's colleges have publicly declared themselves a sanctuary campus.

Legislators in at least two other states, Arkansas and Georgia, have also threatened to block state funding to sanctuary campuses -- if the schools violate federal law. Congress is considering a similar bill, and Republican lawmakers have shown a willingness to support such legislation in the past.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would have withheld federal funding from sanctuary cities, but Democrats in the U.S. Senate blocked the bill.

It's unclear, however, what legal justification state or federal authorities would use to cut off funding to sanctuary campuses. Neither “sanctuary city” nor “sanctuary campus” have a legal meaning. And in 2011, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released a policy that urged its officers and agents to avoid enforcement actions on sensitive locations like colleges and universities.

That's why Jessica Hanson, an attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, said that “any threats regarding funding, I think it would be an uphill battle."

Hanson's organization is also developing model "sanctuary" actions that schools can take without running afoul of federal law. While the specifics vary, they usually include:

  • limiting the sharing of student and family information with federal immigration officials;
  • restricting immigration agents’ physical access to campus, unless they have a subpoena or a warrant;
  • prohibiting campus security or campus police from collaborating with immigration authorities;
  • and providing additional resources, such as legal counseling, for immigrant students and their families.

In some liberal states, the push to become a sanctuary is coming from politicians themselves.

Shortly after the election, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, sent letters to the president and chancellors of the University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges urging them to formally become sanctuary campuses, “where residents can pursue a higher education without the fear of Mr. Trump’s proposed deportation force.”

Earlier this month, California state Sen. Kevin de León, the senate leader, pre-filed a first-of-its-kind bill for the 2017 session that would prohibit state and local law enforcement from using resources “to investigate, detain, detect, report, or arrest persons for immigration enforcement purposes.” In a press release, de León said he would not “stand by and let the federal government use our state and local agencies to separate mothers from their children.” 

During his campaign, President-elect Trump pledged to deport 3 million undocumented immigrants and to repeal President Obama's executive orders that deprioritized the deportation of some undocumented immigrants. Roughly 750,000 young people, many of them students, have received permits under the relief program. Advocates for undocumented immigrants have worried that students would be targeted for deportation. In recent weeks, however, after meeting with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former Obama aide, Trump said he would "work something out" for young immigrants who were brought to this country illegally.

Though the sanctuary campus concept has gained currency among students and faculty at many universities, the institutions’ administrative leadership have been more reluctant to embrace the term.

For example, Garrey Carruthers, president of the New Mexico State University system, declined to adopt the sanctuary label, citing concerns about jeopardizing federal funding. But in a memo, he noted that the system already has policies in place that meet many of the petitions’ demands, such as not disclosing student information without students’ consent or a legal requirement to do so.

Other schools have followed the example of the University of Pennsylvania, where leaders have been more explicit about calling themselves a sanctuary campus:

“Penn is and has always been a ‘sanctuary’ -- a safe place for our students to live and to learn,” wrote the school’s president, provost and executive vice president. “We assure you that we will continue in all of our efforts to protect and support our community, including our undocumented students.”

This story has been updated.