Amid a national debate over immigration policy under the Trump administration, the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, College Park are some of just a very few universities in the nation that have contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

With protests and petitions, students on the two campuses have begun demanding the institutions sever ties with ICE — even as administrators counter that their work with the agency has nothing to do with detention or deportation of undocumented immigrants.

On Thursday, students conducted a public teach-in and rally once again calling on the Johns Hopkins administration to end its contracts with ICE. Students huddled together in the cold outside Brody commons chanting “End the contracts” and “Say it loud; say it clear: Immigrants are welcome here.”

With signs in hand, students walked to the main library together where they dropped an anti-ICE banner from the main balcony, gathering the attention of students studying.

“I think a lot of us just had a moment of reckoning with this, and we realized we had to do something when we learned that our university was helping to perpetuate this crisis which has real human costs,” said Samantha Agarwal, a fourth-year sociology graduate student at Hopkins, who has served as an organizer for a university coalition against ICE. She and other students argue that the relationship with a federal agency that they say violates human rights goes against the university’s values.

Since 2008, the university has earned more than $7 million from 37 contracts with ICE, according to government spending data. Hopkins has three contracts with the agency totaling more than $1.7 million. The contracts are primarily with the medical school for educational programs that provide emergency medical training and leadership education, which are set to expire in 2019.

In a petition that amassed nearly 2,000 signatures, faculty, students, staff and alumni urged Johns Hopkins to end its partnership with ICE, immediately. The petition, delivered Sept. 21 to Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels, stated that supporters did not see “how in good conscience” the university could collaborate with the agency “given the extent and extremity of its cruel practices.”

Daniels and Provost Sunil Kumar responded Oct. 17, stating in a letter that it would be wrong to terminate the contracts, on the grounds that the university has a commitment to the principle of academic freedom.

“We believe that it would be antithetical to the mission of the university if we were to insist that faculty members withhold instruction or medical care in order to have the university express its disapproval with certain aspects of current federal policy,” the letter read.

Students fired back Monday, arguing that the training the university provides enables human rights abuses.

In response to inquiries from The Baltimore Sun, the university pointed to the statement it provided to students. Officials did not respond to follow-up questions about whether they planned to renew the contracts.

While Agarwal says they recognize mass deportations didn’t start with the Trump administration, she and others were catalyzed to act after increased media attention shed light on the conditions within ICE detention centers.

Officials at ICE said the agency has awarded roughly 200 unique contracts to entities under the label “education institution” and highlighted that the work they do is in compliance with federal law and agency policy.

“We focus our resources on aliens who pose a threat to public safety and national security, as the enforcement data makes clear,” said ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke.

In addition to deportations, the agency’s criminal investigative unit rescued and identified 904 children who were victims of sexual exploitation, said Bourke.

Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland are among six institutions of higher education that have contracts with ICE. The others are Virginia Tech, Northeastern University in Boston, University of Alabama Birmingham and Vermont State Colleges System.

In College Park, students demanding that the University of Maryland end its contract with ICE have joined in the call for a leadership overhaul at the university. Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society (PLUMAS) were among 24 student groups taking part in a rally last week calling for President Wallace Loh to fulfill his stated intention to retire in June.

Blanca Arriola Palma, the president of PLUMAS, said the only way they see the university addressing this issue is if there’s a change in leadership overall.

“This is why we’re pushing for institutional change,” she said. “We need a form of change that will have an everlasting impact for future students.”

The university has an active contract with the Homeland Security Investigations division of ICE. The $625,000 award was for the university’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) to provide cultural competency and counterterrorism training to homeland security agents who are stationed at embassies abroad and work on counterterrorism investigations, according to university spokeswoman Jessica Jennings.

Bill Braniff, director of START, said he has made it START’s mission to ensure they are providing objective and research-based analysis to the professional counterterrorism community.

“The training that START is providing … is entirely unrelated to the immigration debate. While I’m very empathetic of concern of students, I hear them and understand them, it would be counterproductive for us to stop doing good empirical counter-terrorism training,” said Braniff.

In a congressional hearing before the Committee on Homeland Security last year, START researchers presented some of their findings, which showed that terrorism in the U.S. is not uniquely linked to Muslim extremism nor to immigrants.

Braniff said that removing that sort of work from the classroom and professional discourse among counterterrorism officials actually does a disservice to immigrants in this country.

“We are not training the enforcement and removal division. It has nothing to do with that. But, we are engaging with counterterrorism professionals in a meaningful, thoughtful discussion on terrorism. And that is our mission.”

In response to inquiries from The Sun, the university pointed to an FAQ officials crafted this semester after queries from students and media.

On whether they plan to enter into any future contracts with ICE the university said in the FAQ that without their involvement, contracts like the one they have could be awarded to groups with a clear political agenda.

“As a public research institution, it is our mission to advance knowledge in areas of importance to the state, the nation, and the world using research-based, data-driven and nonpartisan methods. This includes working with a variety of federal agencies,” the FAQ answers on why the university provides training to ICE.

With the university labeling this the “Year of Immigration,” Palma said she and other students were appalled when they learned through media reports that her school had a relationship with ICE.

“We don’t understand why the university would want to be associated with an institution that has been part of cruel actions towards families, people and immigrant communities. Especially knowing they have undocumented students on campus,” said Palma. “It doesn’t matter what the contracts are about.”