This story has been updated to include a statement from the university.
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Rutgers University President Robert Barchi has sent an email informing the student body of a federal bill known as the BRIDGE Act, which advocates say would better protect undocumented college students.
The proposal would essentially build upon former President Barack Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. Both provide “work authorization and protection from deportation” to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country before age 16 and lived here since, according to advocates.
In Barchi’s email—which was obtained by the conservative-funded, anti-bias watchdog news site Campus Reform—the president highlighted a means for students to write their representatives in support of the BRIDGE Act. But he didn’t urge them to do so.
“Taking action to show your support is easy—it will take no more than a minute or two of your time,” Barchi wrote, providing a link where students could enter their name and address and generate a pre-written “letter of support” to their representatives.
In the next paragraph of the email, however, Barchi emphasized that participation is “entirely optional,” though he supports the bill.
“I would never presume to tell you what to do with respect to legislative advocacy,” he wrote. “We are offering this option to you because many in our community have participated in activities to bring attention to the plight and status of undocumented students.”
Indeed, Rutgers became a hotbed of pro-immigrant demonstrations in the fall 2016 semester, as students grew concerned over what a Donald Trump presidency could mean for undocumented students.
In December, dozens of activists took to a Board of Governors meeting and ultimately shut it down with calls for Barchi to declare Rutgers a “sanctuary school.” From there, they staged a sit-in in the Old Queens administration building.
Less than a month earlier, hundreds—or even thousands—of Rutgers students and faculty members left their classes to march through New Brunswick in protest against Trump.
Barchi, meanwhile, has committed to defending undocumented Rutgers students.
The writer for Campus Reform, which provided TAPinto New Brunswick with a copy of Barchi’s remarks, alleged that the president might have violated university policy by sending the email.
Karen Smith, a spokesperson for Rutgers, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from TAPinto New Brunswick.
But she told Campus Reform that “Barchi understands that students have a variety of positions and that while many support [the BRIDGE Act], there are some who do not. The intention of this letter was to give students the option of voicing their opinion in an effective way.”
Barchi’s email has drawn the ire of at least one campus conservative group, whose secretary called the move “inappropriate.”
A group of several Republican and Democratic lawmakers have co-sponsored of the bill in question, in both the U.S. House and the Senate.
Update, 3:02 p.m. Jan. 24:
Smith, the Rutgers spokesperson, has sent this statement to TAPinto New Brunswick: "President Barchi makes clear in his letter that he wants to give students the option of voicing their opinions in an effective way. He understands and respects that students have a wide variety of positions and that while many support the initiative, there are some who do not. The letter addresses an important protection that he and other higher education leaders nationwide have been advocating for in recent months. The University, like all major public research universities in America, has a robust advocacy and lobbying presence in Washington and Trenton."