A group of 30 students delivered a letter to the School of Foreign Service Deans on May 9 asking the University to rescind Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson’s invitation to speak at the SFS Commencement ceremony. Members and allies of UndocuHoyas, a group that advocates for students who are undocumented immigrants, believe that inviting Johnson, “is a step backward from Georgetown’s leadership on undocumented students support,” according to the letter.
“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 says. It goes on to say, “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 gathered outside the SFS Dean’s Office on Monday at 1 p.m., and were met by Senior Associate Deans Daniel Byman and Anthony Clark Arend, and Emily Zenick, Chief of Staff to the Dean. SFS Dean Joel Hellman is currently traveling out of the country and was unable to attend the meeting.
“We’re glad that you’re all engaging in this issue,” Byman told the assembled group, and added that the students should contact him with availability for a meeting with Hellman when he returns to campus. The students had originally intended to bring the letters to each individual dean; however, the deans approached the group in the ICC Galleria before entering the office.
A graduating senior from the SFS who is an undocumented immigrant (and requested anonymity), described Johnson’s invitation 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.”
In an email to the Voice, Byman clarified that Johnson is not part of 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 wrote.
Reed Howard (SFS ‘17) publicly opposed the letter on the event’s Facebook page, which was hosted by the group Hoyas for Immigrant Rights, calling it “a dangerous attempt by students to silence speech.”
“We [Georgetown] have an obligation to invite people of all different ideas and beliefs and ideology and backgrounds to come to campus,” Howard told the Voice. “Any attempts of students to silence those speakers is a dangerous thing not only for the life of a university but for the democracy in general.” He added that he believes that students opposing Johnson’s speech are hypocritical, as the DHS falls under President Barack Obama’s administration. “Some of the students that I’ve talked to said they wouldn’t be opposed to Barack Obama coming, but they are opposed to Jeh Johnson, even though Jeh Johnson follows the orders of the President.”
Rio Djiwandana (SFS ‘16), who was involved in the letter’s writing and delivery, argued that Johnson’s role places him much more prominently in the experiences of detention and deportation than Obama.
“At the end of the day, the agency that shows up at people’s doors and in people’s neighborhoods is affiliated with the Department of Homeland Security. All of the immigration paperwork that we have to file is filed through the Department of Homeland Security. Orders of deportation and detention are given by the Department of Homeland Security,” said Djiwandana, “and because of that, it hits so much more close to home than just if Obama came.”
“It’s definitely a step backwards because Georgetown has been making so many awesome strides in terms of supporting undocumented students,” he said.
The GUSA Executive announced their support for the UndocuHoyas’ letter, writing in a Facebook post that “We, as the GUSA Executive, support undocumented students and students with mixed status families as members of our community, and will do everything in our power to ensure that they meet with relevant administrators to express their concerns firsthand.”
More than 200 people have signed an online petition, started by alumna Hemly Ordonez (SFS ‘08) calling for the University to rescind the invitation. “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,” the petition says. The petition had 251 supporters as of 11:15 p.m. on May 9.
In a statement released on May 10, the university defended the invitation and explained their decision, referring to Johnson’s engagement with issues such as migration and disaster response. “These are challenges without simple answers and finding solutions requires collaboration, negotiation and compromise among stakeholders and policy makers. Throughout his long career, Jeh Johnson has been at the center these complex challenges, displaying leadership in seeking to find viable and politically tractable solutions to these issues, often facing criticisms from throughout the political spectrum.”
“We respect these concerns and recognize the commitment of students who are advocating on the impact that laws and policies have on people’s lives,” the statement continues. “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.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include the University’s statement.