You can check out the full debate here.

While the debate was about President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, much of the early buzz centered around the possibility of protests on the part of various far-left student groups. It felt strange that a high-profile, well-publicized debate at times felt overshadowed by the mere threat of a protest in the lead-up.

The presence of campus police and rumors of additional undercover officers only highlighted the uncertainty of the event. Until half an hour before the start of the event, two officers blocked the doors to non-organizers as staff wheeled stacks of chairs out of the room. Apparently to ensure proper security, the Kurtzman Room of the William Pitt Union — which is capable of seating 400 people — had been set up to only accommodate 200 students, after which point the doors were roped off. Members of College Republicans, Students for Liberty, and the Young Americans for Liberty were allowed in shortly after 7:30 PM, while others were allowed in at 8 PM, half an hour before the scheduled start of the debate.

Prior to the debate, and once the room had filled, Marlo Safi, the President of the College Republicans, used her time before the debate to remind attendees that this was an event for civil discourse, and asked protesters to “limit your protest or questions to the Q&A sessions at the end.”

The debate featured Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the CATO Institute, and Hans von Spakovsky from the Heritage Foundation, a senior legal fellow at Heritage’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

Several minutes into Nowrasteh’s speech, a handful of protesters donned party hats and held up small paper signs that had been smuggled in reading “no one is ‘illegal,’” “immigrants are not a commodity,” “your debate < someone else’s livelihood,” and “YOU ARE NOT WELCOME ON OUR CAMPUS,” among other slogans. At one point, a protester began playing “the Marseillaise” — the French national anthem — on the kazoo.

Protesters hold up signs, courtesy of Michael Yorgey

As the kazoo player and his friend were escorted out by police, another protester shouted “I think you mean undocumented,” apparently in response to Nowrasteh’s use of the term “illegal immigrant.” “If your problem is seriously the rhetoric, then yeah you can leave,” responded Nowrasteh to applause from the audience.

Moving forward with his comments after the protester was removed, Nowrasteh argued that “every portion of Donald Trump’s immigration plan will negatively impact Americans.” He went on to aggressively attack the idea of a border wall as “an expensive boondoggle,” E-Verify as a “catastrophe” that “doesn’t work,” and policies to crack down on sanctuary cities as “an affront to federalism.”

For his part, von Spakovsky began by arguing that America was extraordinarily generous to immigrants, taking in roughly one million per year, but that a distinction must be made between legal and illegal immigration. Elaborating on this point, he said that “Illegal Immigration… goes against something this country was founded on, which is the rule of law.” He also argued that amnesty would cripple taxpayers — citing a study which found a cost to taxpayers of $6.3 trillion — and used the example of the murder of Kate Steinle by an illegal immigrant to argue against sanctuary cities.

Shortly into his comments, however, von Spakovsky was interrupted by deliberate coughing, a loud growl, and, naturally, another kazoo player. As they, too, were escorted out, he responded with the charge that “these are the same tactics my mother saw from the brownshirts in Nazi Germany,” to which the crowd responded with generous applause.

From there, the debate proceeded more smoothly and traditionally, with the majority of tension coming as a consequence of the exchange between the debaters on issues including illegal immigrant crime rates, economic impacts of illegal immigration, and the validity of the statistics deployed by the two sides.

Meanwhile, the protesters gradually moved outside the hall after each incidence of heckling and collected in front of the William Pitt Union. One woman was arrested during her outburst. The Unsafe Place has reached out to the University Police for more information and will update the article with any comment. Additionally, anarchist symbols, “cops off campus,” and “free Abby” were graffitied onto the statue of the Panther outside the William Pitt Union. It is not known if this was done in response to the arrest of the protester during the debate.

Vandalism on the Panther Statue, courtesy of Derek Wagner & Andrew Zentgraf

Kenyon Bonner, the Dean of Students, attended part of the debate and also talked briefly with some of the students outside. “My job and my interest is listening to students’ concerns, whatever they may be,” Bonner told us, “and students have different opinions and they’re passionate about different initiatives and causes, and so students were expressing their frustration to me about several things.”

He also expressed his disapproval with the way the protesters expressed their thoughts and added that “Any university, in my opinion, is a place where you should have the opportunity to hear, and be exposed to, different perspectives, viewpoints, and ideologies.”

Steven Harris, the Communications Director for the College Republicans, said he was pleased with the debate and the performance of representatives from the CATO Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Regarding the protests, he commented that “it is sad that they are so closed-minded that they protested their own side of the debate.” He also extended a thank you to both the Pitt police and the William Pitt Union staff for their efficient handling of the protesters.

“I am thankful,” said Harris, “that the University of Pittsburgh continues to stand for freedom of speech and open dialogue.”

Henry Glitz, who attended the debate and left with the demonstrators but did not expressly agree with them, said he thought it was “ridiculous” that protesters were removed. “They weren’t stopping anyone from speaking, they were just exercising their first amendment rights,” Glitz said in reference to those holding signs.

Lenny McAllister, a former Republican Congressional Candidate in the 14th District and an adjunct professor of history at LaRoche College, attended the debate at the invitation of the moderator, Dr. Paul Kengor. McAllister said he thought it was a robust debate, but that it featured examples of “‘rhetoric vs. reality’ in the approaches and extrapolations of statistics, historical approaches, and projected results via the policies each advocate.”

As for the protests, McAllister “felt that the protests were mistimed, inappropriate, and misguided.” “Winning on the policy front in America must be about a battle of facts and vision, not a war of white noise and distraction tactics. That was a lesson that those in the audience learned — unintentionally — from the protesters tonight.”

The Pitt College Republicans meet Tuesdays at 9 and Students for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty meet Wednesdays at 9.

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