Three months after Perry World House shut down a University-hosted panel due to student protesters, former United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Thomas Homan spoke at Houston Hall without interruption while protesters chanted outside the venue.
Homan spoke for an hour to an audience of more than 40 attendees. Outside, a similar number of protesters gathered in Houston Market and surrounding stairwells, blocked from the door by Penn security officials. Homan emphasized the tragedy of the border crisis, but said ICE is not the agency that controls the detainment centers, and should not be blamed for enforcing Congress' laws. The event, "ICE: Fact vs. Fiction," was hosted by Penn's College Republicans.
For the entirety of Homan’s speech, protesters chanted slogans including, “No ICE. No KKK. No Fascist USA,” and “No hate. No wall. Sanctuaries for all.” Some posters read: “No one is illegal on stolen land,” and “Multiculturalism is America.”
During the Q&A session at the end of the event, Wharton first-year Christopher Gonzalez asked, "Have you seen the [border] wall work? Does it work?" Homan responded that the border walls have helped to slow down sex and drug trafficking, as well as illegal immigration.
“Walls work," Homan said, gesturing to the protesters outside the room. "As we can see tonight, walls work.”
Former Commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Robert Bonner told PBS that physical barriers can be effective, but they cannot completely stop migrants from trying to cross the border. Some migrants may find other, more complicated ways of bypassing the border, PBS reported.
Throughout the event, protesters booed and stomped their feet in unison.
"Our goal tonight is ultimately for Penn to stop bringing racist a**holes to speak on campus," College sophomore and protester Maya Hairston said.
Protester and College sophomore Summer Thomas added in between chants, "If not anything else, [we protest] to show the immigrants here at Penn that there are still people that support them regardless of if the institution does."
Gonzalez said he thought the event was informative, but encourages dissenters to listen to opposing ideas.
“I strongly agree with the right to protest, but I think people should stay open-minded and try to listen to different ideas, rather than to shut down speakers," Gonzalez said. "I think if people from both sides got the chance to hear it, even if they disagree with it, they’d at least come out of it with some more knowledge.”
Homan was appointed by 1968 Wharton graduate and President Donald Trump, and served as ICE acting director from January 2017 until his retirement in June 2018. During his tenure, ICE implemented controversial policies that many say violated the rights of immigrant families, including the revocation of a policy that had allowed some critically ill undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States for medical treatment. Under former President Barack Obama, Homan oversaw thousands of border arrests. In the same month he retired, Homan also defended the Trump administration's policy which separated immigrant families along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to CNBC.
"Families that came across the border, I feel bad for them," Homan told the audience. "Believe me, I do. I'm a father, too. When you put an ICE badge in your pocket and a gun in your hip, it doesn't mean you stop caring about people."
College Republicans Communications Director and College first-year Harrison Selznick, who attended the event, said the group invited Homan back to Penn so students could get a chance to hear him speak.
"We just wanted to dispel some of the myths that are associated with ICE so some people actually know the purpose of ICE and what they do," Selznick said.
College Republicans President and College sophomore Spencer Landis added that the group was disappointed when Perry World House's panel, "Detention and Deportation from Obama to Trump" was shut down last semester.
Landis said he thought 100 to 150 people would attend Tuesday's event because of the registration list on EventBrite. He said many attendees were deterred from entering the room by protesters.
“[The protesters] were blocking the staircase and the entrance," Landis said. "There were lots of kids who registered who couldn’t get into the event due to the protesters’ actions.”
After the event, The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with Homan before he was escorted out of the building by security.
"I’m just here trying to set the facts straight and tell people who Homan is, what Homan did, and why Homan did what he did so they understand the full concept of what happened at the Southwest border," he said.
After Homan left the building, protesters continued to chant outside Houston Hall, where they stood in a circle on Penn Commons.
College senior and protester Jacob Hershman was part of this circle.
"We were hoping to encounter some of the [event attendees] who were leaving, but that wasn't the case," he said. "So that tradition of making a channel for which people will have to pass, sort of like a walk of shame also didn't happen, so it became kind of a community moment."
Event attendees were told by Penn security to exit Houston Hall through a side door, and therefore did not encounter the protesters. Homan was escorted out of the building separately.
"I’ll come back here 100 times," Homan told the DP. "I’m not afraid to talk to anybody."
Senior photographer Chase Sutton contributed reporting.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Penn police shut down a November event when in fact it was Perry World House. The DP regrets this error.