Illegal immigrant students at Georgetown University are demanding the keynote speaker for this year’s School of Foreign Service (SFS) commencement ceremony be disinvited because he threatens their safe space. In other words, he might actually enforce the law, which they have been guilty of violating.
Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson is scheduled to speak at Georgetown on Saturday, May 21st, to graduates of the school’s foreign service program. On May 9th, a group of 30 students and members of UndocuHoyas, an illegal immigrant advocacy group, delivered a letter to the University deans asking that they rescind Johnson’s invitation. The students said they believed inviting Johnson “is a step backward from Georgetown’s leadership on undocumented students support.”
“As Secretary of Homeland Security, Johnson has orchestrated the detention and deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, including members of our families and communities,” the letter, obtained by Georgetown Voice, reads. It continues, “We should not be forced to receive our diplomas from an individual who is directly responsible for separating our families. Therefore, we strongly implore the university to rescind Secretary Johnson’s speaking invitation and take meaningful action to ensure that graduation is an inclusive and safe experience for all members of the Georgetown community.”
The students assembled around the dean’s office in protest of Johnson’s invitation, which they described as “very much a slap in the face.”
“I have to shake hands with the person who has the power to deport me and my family,” the student said. “I want the university to know that this is not just a political issue in the abstract. It’s a personal issue and individuals, fellow Hoyas, are being affected by this.”
Senior Associate Dean Daniel Byman assured the students they won’t have to shake hands with Johnson, as he will not partake in the degree conferral.
“Students walking across the stage will first receive the diploma translation from Dean Hellman and shake hands, they then shake hands with President DeGioia, and then they get hooded by the BSFS deans. The speaker has no role in the degree conferral,” he said.
But the students were not satisfied. In a petition called Stop Secretary Johnson From Receiving An Honorary Degree From Georgetown University, they expressed their dissent to the Department of Homeland Security and demanded the university remove Johnson from their commencement ceremony altogether.
The petition, started by Georgetown alumna Hemly Ordonez, reads:
Johnson’s invitation is an insult to my family, to the myriad of Georgetown alumni from mixed-documented families, and to the undocumented students who are preparing to graduate this month. Graduation is supposed to be a safe, welcoming environment for students and families who have worked so hard to graduate, not a hostile or uncomfortable one.
“I know where I stand on illegal immigration: I support borders strong enough to defend this country from harm,” Georgetown student Jawad Bin Amir Abdur-Razaaq posted to Facebook. “But undocumented immigrants have, and will continue to come across the border regardless. This isn’t a matter of breaking the law. It’s a matter of finding shelter in a nation where laws matter.”
But many students disagree with the UndocuHoyas, saying the school should be able to host speakers on all sides of the argument, not just those who agree with them. Student Reed Howard responded to the UndocuHoyas by creating a Facebook event titled “Protect Freedom of Speech at Georgetown University” and starting a petition urging Georgetown President John J. DeGioia and his associate deans to keep its invitation to Johnson despite opposition.
The petition, which warns against organized censorship of certain speakers as “dangerous”, reads:
While some of my peers will argue that shutting down Secretary Johnson constitutes solidarity with students who are undocumented and an effort to make them feel “more safe” at their graduation ceremony, the reality is that Georgetown’s potential decision to rescind the invitation would amount to nothing more than censorship. Censorship comes in many different forms, most maliciously when disguised with benevolent intentions.
Howard told The Daily Wire the attempt to ban Johnson from Georgetown reflects an “all too typical” attitude of college students who shut out people for holding an opposing view.
“I started the petition to make the point that not all college students are opposed to listening to speakers with whom they might disagree; not all of us desire to live in echo chambers,” Howard wrote in an email. “My hope is that Georgetown University is strong enough to stand up for its convictions and honor the diversity of thought and opinion essential to any university. I would be ashamed if Georgetown fell victim to this assault on free speech sweeping college campuses, so I decided to do something about it and start a counter petition.”
Georgetown administrators responded Tuesday by releasing a letter inviting illegal immigrant students to meet with them and join in discussion about the issue to “foster even more dialogue.” The letter does not indicate, however, any plans to rescind Johnson’s invitation.
The letter from Georgetown administration reads:
As a university, we are uniquely committed to the free exchange of ideas and discourse. We believe that the best approach to address concerns is through dialogue and engagement. Our University leadership will meet with students this week to hear their experiences and concerns and is committed to seeking forums in which Secretary Johnson’s engagement on campus can foster even more dialogue on these challenging issues.
As a Catholic and Jesuit institution, Georgetown is proud to value all members of our community, regardless of immigration status. The university offers support for undocumented students and is committed to providing resources to them as members of our university community.
The Black House, a house designated for minority students at Georgetown, scheduled a discussion of the issue for Thursday, May 12th, then added “Canceled” to the Facebook event page title because of a school policy prohibiting official club gatherings during finals week. The event is still up on Facebook, however.