Federal immigration enforcement agents were not at Cornell on Tuesday despite widespread alarm regarding a reported sighting, which spread while the University refused for hours to confirm that rumors shared on social media and by email were false.
“Earlier today, an independent contractor for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) arrived on the Ithaca campus to conduct a routine background check related to an individual’s application for a job with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” President Martha Pollack said in a statement.
When the contractor identified himself at a visitor booth, Pollack said, “a false rumor quickly circulated across campus and on social media that the visitor was an officer of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“It is understandable, in light of recent, local action by ICE, that this news — while inaccurate — would be met with great concern,” Pollack said.
Emails from department chairs, concerned faculty, campus groups and the Office of the University Registrar flooded many students’ inboxes Tuesday morning as community members forwarded the sighting of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, highlighting the Cornell community’s fear after last week’s arrest of an Ithaca resident by ICE officers.
False warnings of ICE and CBP agents proliferated on Facebook, Twitter and local media on Tuesday morning as well, while campus officials declined to speak on the record about the incident as Pollack’s statement was drafted, which was not released until 1:30 p.m.
“There are so many conflicting sources scaring the shit out of people,” Vanessa Navarro Rodriguez ’18 told The Sun shortly before the University released its statement. “I’m shocked [Cornell has] not handled it. Everyone is scared.”
Nearly two hours before the University released Pollack’s statement, however, two campus groups, Cornell DREAM Team and La Asociación Latina, posted updates on their Facebook pages alerting students that the initial rumors were false and including screenshots of what appeared to be a text message from Cornell Police Chief Kathy Zoner debunking the CBP spotting.
Faculty and students noted privately and publicly that if immigration enforcement agents had been on campus, the University’s response may have not come until after enforcement agents left. The social media posts from the DREAM Team and LAL, as well as emails from Cornell Coalition for Inclusive Democracy, these people said, kept students informed while the administration stayed silent.
The spread of information, Prof. Ella Maria Diaz, English and Latina/o studies, said, “really shows that the broader campus community is committed to the safety of their students and each other.”
“The rate at which information was shared, I found it to be deeply satisfying and energizing, to see how many people on this campus care and are actually deeply concerned for each other,” she told The Sun on Tuesday evening.
Pollack, in her statement, added that “Cornell representatives, including Cornell University Police Department, will comply with lawfully issued subpoenas and warrants,” but that “it is neither the university’s practice nor expectation to function as an agent of the federal government regarding enforcement of federal immigration laws.”
Prof. Shannon Gleeson, industrial and labor relations, said today’s rumors were “a wake-up for all parties involved.”
“The campus climate has tended to be somewhat flippant” on these issues, Gleeson, who is an immigration scholar, told The Sun. Tuesdsay’s events “make it clear to folks that this is an issue that has great mental health implications, especially at this time of the semester.”
Zoner said in March that Cornell Police “will not seek immigration status information of any individual in the course of its law enforcement activities, unless necessary to investigate criminal activity by that individual or required by law.”
Zoner also said CUPD would act within the bounds of the sanctuary legislation passed by Ithaca and Tompkins County, which generally prohibit city and county employees from asking about a person’s immigration status. The city legislation also restricts Ithaca Police from detaining someone for ICE and, in most cases, from complying with a civil immigration detainer from ICE or CBP without a judicial warrant.
Gleeson said Tuesday was “a dry run” for a scenario in which ICE or CBP agents do show up on or near campus, seeking to arrest an undocumented student.
“If students feel under threat and they sound an alarm and they send out information … they should be commended for that,” Gleeson said. “The upshot of this is that it activated a network of information that is important for us to have.”
“I think it maybe took until today to understand the urgency of having that protocol in place,” she said.