More than 1,000 people sign letter urging University action against ICE guidance

By Rebecca Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

More than 1,000 people have signed an open letter penned by four graduate students in the English department to Pitt’s administration urging the University to take swift action against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s new guidelines, which would force international students to leave the country if all classes are online only in the fall.

The letter — written by Boen Wang, Grace Gilbert, Margaret Saigh and K. Henderson — asserted that international students should have the option of teaching and learning remotely without risking deportation or having to transfer to a university offering in-person instruction. The letter was addressed to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, Provost Ann Cudd and Anantha Shekhar, the senior vice chancellor for health sciences and chair of the Chancellor’s Healthcare Advisory Group.

The four students originally wrote the letter Sunday as a challenge to the requirement that all professors must provide an in-person classroom experience for the fall semester. Wang said the group quickly altered the letter after ICE released its guidelines to better highlight international students’ concerns.

“Every person should have the right to learn and teach entirely remotely so no one has to jeopardize their health, especially international students,” Wang said.

The University plans to implement both its new Flex@Pitt teaching model and a three-tiered reopening system to allow for in-person teaching to resume during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In-person instruction at Pitt would only be allowed if Allegheny County remains in the green phase of reopening, per state rules, and the University itself moves to its green-equivalent reopening status.

To reflect ICE’s new guidance, the letter urges Pitt to adopt 11 measures to better protect international and immigrant students. Many of the measures focus on making Pitt a “sanctuary campus,” where students would be protected from ICE. This includes barring the group from accessing student records, mandating that administration and Pitt police limit contact with ICE, providing pro bono legal services for international students and preventing ICE from physically entering University spaces.

The letter also demanded Pitt pursue legal action against ICE and the Trump administration alongside other universities. After ICE issued the guidance Monday, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration Wednesday. Many large universities, including nearby Carnegie Mellon and Pitt rival Penn State, are filing court papers in support of the Harvard and MIT suit.

Pitt said in a Monday statement that ICE’s guidance is “misguided and unfair to international students, harmful to higher education across the United States and damaging to both regional and national economies.” Pitt also said it would call on the Trump administration to reverse the guidance.

Shortly after releasing the statement, Pitt’s Office of International Services sent emails to all international students further elaborating on what they should do to remain in the United States come fall. Wang criticized this email for what he viewed as “insensitive” messaging from the University.

“It is not at all that, ‘We oppose the ICE decree and we will fight for you.’ It was like, ‘Yeah if we have online instruction, you need to go home.’” Wang said. “The messaging is awful.”

Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick did not directly respond to questions about specific actions the University is taking to counter the guidance. He also didn’t respond directly to whether Pitt planned to join litigation against the administration or the likelihood of establishing Pitt as a sanctuary campus.

“Pitt is carefully assessing several actions we can take to protect our international students from the effects of this discriminatory decision and to stand up against it in partnership with our peers in the higher education world,” Zwick said. “We will continue to directly communicate with our international students in the coming days about how they can best continue their Pitt education.”

Wang said he believes that the University should offer more insight on concrete action it plans on taking.

“All they’ve offered is a two-paragraph statement they tweeted out,” Wang said. “It’s been less than 48 hours and CMU across the street is challenging the federal government and Pitt wrote two paragraphs.”