In light of student and alumni advocacy efforts opposing his selection as the School of Foreign Service commencement speaker, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson met with university administrators and members of the Georgetown community — including undocumented students — during a three-hour visit on campus Monday.
During the meetings, which were organized by the SFS Dean’s Office, Johnson reportedly spoke with 12 students about their concerns regarding current immigration issues and his forthcoming speech. Selected by the Dean’s Office, the group consisted of graduating student leaders from a variety of backgrounds.
In an interview with The Hoya, Johnson, who will also receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the SFS on Saturday, said he found the discussion to be constructive.
“I would say that it was an informative meeting,” Johnson said. “I told them that their voices are voices that deserve to be heard, that they inform policy and that I admire and respect the passion of their commitment.”
In addition, Johnson met with administrators including SFS Dean Joel Hellman and University Provost Robert Groves.
Groves supports Johnson’s selection and honorary degree, according to Chief of Staff to the Executive Vice President and Provost Ali Whitmer.
According to Hellman, Johnson had planned on visiting campus prior to the backlash surrounding his selection to meet with students and better understand the community — a procedure that Johnson said he tries to follow for all his speaking engagements at universities.
During the meeting, Johnson said he explained to students the difficulty of balancing his personal beliefs with his professional obligations.
“When I go to the southern border and I encounter a lot of unaccompanied children who have been apprehended by our border patrol — there are hundreds of them — as a father and a Christian, I want to scoop them up and bring them home with me, but I know I can’t,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he also emphasized the importance of enforcing border control and regulations.
“There are lots of other considerations that go into border security and the enforcement of our immigration laws, and so to the fullest extent possible, I want to account for my personal convictions and my personal compassion, but I also have to enforce the law, consistent with our priorities,” Johnson said. “We don’t have an open border to illegal migration, and if we don’t prioritize those apprehended at the border, then we effectively have an open border.”
Throughout his tenure, Johnson oversaw the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which increased the number of deportation exemptions for immigrants who entered the country illegally before their 16th birthday, and the creation of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans policy, which grants deferred action to individuals who entered the country illegally but have children who are American citizens or legal permanent residents. The two acts, which resulted in several lawsuits filed against the United States by states with Republican governors, are now in litigation before the Supreme Court.
Edwin Lopez (SFS ’16), who participated in a meeting between student leaders and Johnson, said the meeting was an important step forward.
“I think the university has given both Secretary Johnson and the people who oppose him coming a place in the conversation. That’s the best thing they could have done and Secretary Johnson coming to meet people was a very positive step. At least all voices were heard and the forum was open,” Lopez said.
Johnson’s selection sparked ire across the university community. After the university announced the selection two weeks ago, advocacy group UndocuHoyas delivered a letter to the SFS Dean’s Office requesting that the university rescind the speaking invitation. The letter received support from Hoyas for Immigrant Rights, while the Georgetown University Student Association also expressed its support for the right of UndocuHoyas to express their disagreement with the selection.
A change.org petition started by Hemly Ordonez (SFS ’08) May 9 also called for the university to cancel Johnson’s speech and revoke his nomination for an honorary degree. The petition has amassed 742 signatures as of 8 p.m. Thursday.
Ordonez, who is from a mixed-status family, supported student advocates by providing her consultation as a digital strategy professional specializing in cause marketing.
According to Ordonez, the meeting between Johnson and the students is unlikely to change the emotional responses from undocumented students and their families during commencement.
“It still doesn’t take away this hurt that some of the students and their families may be experiencing during this graduation cycle. It still doesn’t take away the fear that the students experience when encountering anyone from homeland security,” Ordonez said. “One meeting does not remedy that.”
Although the university currently has no plans to rescind the invitation, Ordonez said she would like the university to apologize for selecting Johnson as the commencement speaker.
“I think that they need to issue an apology to the students and their families for causing undue harm on a weekend that’s supposed to be a celebratory weekend for all of the graduates,” Ordonez said.
Ahead of commencement, Hellman said he is in favor of students expressing their personal viewpoints and experiences symbolically during the ceremony.
“We want to highlight the achievements of undocumented students, and we don’t want to do anything to suggest that they don’t have the full support of the community,” Hellman said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that the Georgetown University Student Association supported UndocuHoyas’ letter to the SFS Dean’s Office to rescind Johnson’s invitation. GUSA’s statement supported UndocuHoyas’ expression of frustration and disappointment.