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2016 will not, I suspect, go down in the history books as one of humanity’s great success stories. Zika, North Korean nukes, Brexit and Trump all combined to make it an altogether pretty grim trip around the sun.

In academia, not unrelatedly, it was the Year of the Presidential Statement. Vaguely-worded missives flew as four-stripers around the country attempted to quell protests, mollify distraught students and generally show the world what nice, normal, well-meaning people they really are.

The latest local manifestation of this phenomenon, of course, was Amy Gutmann’s recent statement declaring Penn a “sanctuary campus.” Even in a genre defined by wishy-washiness and obfuscation, this specimen stood out for being not only particularly hollow, but outright misleading as well.

The centerpiece of Gutmann’s note was her commitment not to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on campus without a warrant. Practically and legally, this is meaningless. If ICE ever bothered coming to Penn to apprehend or gain information about an undocumented student, they would almost certainly obtain a court order authorizing it first. Presented with such a document, Penn would have no choice but to furnish whatever information or facilities access the order described.

The only circumstance in which Penn’s refusal to cooperate could possibly matter is if ICE agents sought the voluntary turnover of student records or consent to enter a school-owned building. If Penn values the privacy and personal integrity of its students, it should refuse such requests as a matter of routine — and not expect kudos for it.

As far as “not allow[ing]” ICE agents access onto campus, well, there is nothing legally or practically preventing a plainclothes agent taking a stroll up Locust Walk just like anyone else.

The commitment to keep extending certain benefits to undocumented students was equally empty. Promising to keep offering grant-based financial aid to those “who apply as international students” constitutes nothing more than a commitment to keep accepting international students. A student residing illegally in the United States who applied as an international student from their home country would be evaluated on the same need-aware basis as a student actually residing in that country and would compete for aid from the same smaller pool.

Continuing to allow students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status to participate in work-study is hardly more revolutionary, as DACA grants work permits to qualifying individuals. DACA, however, is a highly controversial program implemented unilaterally by this administration, and as such can be unilaterally rescinded by the next. If Trump were to dismantle DACA, undocumented Penn students would lose work-study eligibility, and there would be nothing Penn could do to stop it.

As for the claim that Penn will advocate for comprehensive immigration reforms, it’s inappropriate for the University to adopt official political positions.

It adds up to this: Gutmann’s declaration that Penn is a “sanctuary campus” sounded like a promise to do something radical, but it wasn’t. It was a promise only to continue doing, for the time being, what the current, unstable law already allows.

Unfortunately, however, the student body seems as a whole to have interpreted the missive as just the opposite: a commitment by Penn to actually shield students from immigration enforcement. This is mostly not an unfortunate accident or failing on students’ part; it is a predictable consequence of the way the message was worded. With its language of “sanctuary” and “refusal,” the letter sounds — deliberately so, I suspect — like a commitment to shield undocumented students from the law. But if you read it rigorously (a difficult enough task that I had to consult two different lawyers to make sure my interpretation was correct) it is simply no such thing.

Whether it would be morally desirable, under some future set of circumstances, for Penn to go further is a different and thornier question. Personally, I can imagine an extreme but plausible situation in which immigration policy became so draconian that I would support defiance of it. But I frankly doubt that, faced with the loss of federal funding, Penn would have the backbone to do the right thing.

None of this is to say that there cannot be a place at Penn for students whose parents brought them into the country unlawfully. These so-called “Dreamers” face tremendously difficult circumstances which they had little or no part in creating. In my view, they deserve our nation’s compassion. In the present moment, when a man who loudly rejects the notion of extending that compassion has been elevated to the nation’s highest office, they face an especially unenviable and, I am sure, frightening situation.

It does them no good, however, for Penn to issue vague, misleading statements providing false reassurance. Even to the extent that Gutmann may have provided some comfort to students facing genuinely concerning circumstances, falsity renders that reassurance unproductive. Preparing to do what is morally right requires frank recognition of the circumstances as they are, not the collective indulgence of fantasies about our own virtue and its capabilities.


ALEC WARD is a College senior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is alecward@sas.upenn.edu. Follow him on Twitter @TalkBackWard. “Fair Enough,” usually appears every Wednesday. 

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