North Carolina

Immigration agents are not visiting UNC-Chapel Hill campus, ICE says

A tour group of parents, future students and family members learn the history of UNC’s Old Well on the Chapel Hill campus.
A tour group of parents, future students and family members learn the history of UNC’s Old Well on the Chapel Hill campus. News & Observer file photo

Immigration officials are not actively carrying out enforcement at UNC-Chapel Hill, according to a university official and a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost sent a memo to deans, directors and department heads in May instructing them to call university police if federal or state agents inquired about a student or faculty or staff member, according to emails obtained by The News & Observer.

The nonprofit NC Policy Watch first reported in August that university officials may have sent an email about ICE agents visiting the UNC campus.

The memo to university leaders includes a link to a Q&A about how to handle requests from immigration agents and a card with instructions on what to do if agents make contact in writing or in person.

“United States and North Carolina agencies may seek information from the University regarding a range of matters,” the card reads. “These matters may include immigration issues, export control, compliance with applicable laws, and national security issues. This guide is intended to help you manage such inquiries.”

The memo was not in response to immigration officials visiting campus, Ron Strauss, UNC’s executive vice provost and chief international officer, told The News & Observer. It was an effort to guide university leaders on how to comply with federal laws that prohibit disclosing information about students and employees without their consent, Strauss said.

“It was truly a preventive and proactive endeavor,” he said. “If somebody might’ve made the mistake of thinking we were responding to something that had occurred, that was not the case.

“We made a decision to make a very simple desk card, two sides of an index card that just said ‘what do you do if,’ and ‘how do you manage it.’ It’s respectful. It’s not a challenge to any law enforcement agent,” Strauss continued. “But it is an effort to try and give the staff and faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill some anticipatory guidance should anything ever occur.”

Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman for the southern region, cited the “sensitive locations” policy created in 2011 that generally prevents the agency from performing arrests, interviews, searches and surveillance at schools, hospitals and churches.

Agents might go to a school in relation to a criminal investigation, Cox said.

“I was not aware of any visit and I’m still not aware of any visit to a college campus,” he said.

In late April, Strauss and some other employees began putting together a protocol addressed to leadership on campus, according to emails obtained by The N&O through a public records request. The memo directs leaders to distribute the information to their respective faculty and staff and is signed by Strauss.

The memo went out May 2.

“I was eager to get it out because this has probably happened on other campuses and it would be good for us to be on the prepared side,” Strauss said.

Strauss wrote to UNC Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Bob Blouin on April 25: “This is a broad message to prepare staff and faculty for any possible visits from federal or state agents as these visits are becoming more common. The message is part of awareness and training steps to support colleagues on campus In their ability to handle campus visits by federal and state agents.”

Blouin responded the next day, “ I will need to get Chancellor Folt’s thoughts as well.”

By May 2, Strauss and Katie Bowler Young, UNC Global’s director of global relations, both emailed Clayton Somers, vice chancellor for public affairs and secretary to the university, for his approval of the memo.

The urgency to approve the memo is evident in Strauss’s email to Somers: “We are eager to get this out to the campus as there is concern that we might experience visits from Federal or State agents at any time now and that our staff are not prepared for how to manage such visits,” Strauss wrote.

“Other universities have had agents visit their campuses and the universities were not always well-prepared, thus leaving staff members on their own to respond to inquiries without administrative guidance.”

Strauss said in an interview that he attended a meeting in Washington, D.C,. in early spring for members of the Association of International Education Administrators where he learned from a provost of another university that a staff member had been intimidated by a federal agent’s badge and identification to release confidential information.

“It heightened my awareness — I’m the chief international officer — heightened my awareness that universities needed to be prepared should that occur,” Strauss said.

Strauss noted that state and federal agents do visit the campus for background checks related to job applications.

Camila Molina: 919-829-4538, @Cmolina__