Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson forewarned students of the difficulty of making moral and critical decisions in government in his School of Foreign Service commencement address – which was briefly interrupted by a group of 10 hecklers – in McDonough Arena on Saturday.
“In government, decision making and policymaking, doing the right thing is rarely simple, pure or perfect,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s selection as commencement speaker was met with opposition from student and alumni groups due to his role in immigration enforcement and the deportation of individuals who entered the country illegally.
Johnson’s speech was interrupted by a group of hecklers from United We Dream, who disrupted the first couple of minutes of Johnson’s address by shouting, “Stop deportations!” The hecklers, who consisted of youth leaders dedicated to promoting immigrant causes in the United States, were met with boos and chants of “Hoya Saxa” from the audience. Two minutes later, Georgetown University Police Department officers escorted the group out of the arena after the group failed to comply with requests from Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Jeanne Lord to stop.
SFS Dean Joel Hellman said he respects the rights of the protestors who interrupted Johnson’s address.
“We respect their right to raise their voices. I am pleased that Johnson was able to finish his remarks and the standing ovation from the audience attests that he delivered a powerful and resonant message,” Hellman wrote in a statement to The Hoya.
A change.org petition, launched by Hemly Ordonez (SFS ’08) to ask the university to cancel Johnson’s address, received 756 signatures as of 7 a.m. today. Reed Howard (SFS ’17) launched a counterpetition asking the university to keep Johnson as speaker; 453 people signed Howard’s petition as of 7 a.m. today. Ordonez called for the university to formally apologize for selecting Johnson as commencement speaker after the university confirmed it would not disinvite Johnson.
In his introduction for Johnson, international affairs and government professor Charles King said Johnson has decades of influential policymaking experience, including dealing with matters of national security and terrorism, in addition to working to allow gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military.
“Secretary Johnson helped transform policies that had guided U.S. actions since the end of the Cold War and the attacks of September 11,” King said. “He coauthored the government report that paved the way for the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ [policy].”
Johnson stated that he originally prepared a different speech but rewrote much of it to focus on immigration and balancing ethics and policymaking in response to the controversy surrounding his visit. He met on Monday with 12 undocumented students and student leaders to discuss their concerns regarding his speech.
“There has been the controversy that has arisen on this campus as a result of the invitation to me to be your commencement speaker,” Johnson said. “I decided to scrap the prior approach and address the immediate issue – that you saw, head on.”
Johnson said he appreciated the passion of those who disagree with the government’s immigration policy.
“First, to the students and alumni who object to me and our immigration policy: I admire your energy and passion,” Johnson said. “Your views matter and they contribute to the policy making of our government and do not become disheartened if others oppose you.”
Johnson also said he would respect any student who would not shake his hand, and said it is an important representation of America’s democratic principles.
“There are graduates who have stated publicly that they do not want to shake my hand. That is your right and your privilege. I am willing to extend my hand to every one of you,” Johnson said. “In our democracy, the people do not owe their government leaders any form of reverence. If anything, it is the other way around. We are public servants. We work for you.”
Johnson said that even though he is mandated to enforce current immigration law, he has sought to work with President Obama to reform immigration enforcement. Johnson has overseen an expansion in programs for deportation exemptions, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans policy, during his tenure as secretary of homeland security.
“When I took this job I accepted an obligation to enforce the law, consistent with the enforcement priorities of President Obama’s administration,” Johnson said. “Two years ago President Obama directed me to revise our immigration enforcement policies to make them more humane and fair and in November 2014.”
Johnson said that, while he works to reform immigration laws, he must still uphold the policies currently in place and maintain the rule of law.
“At the same time we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities for enforcement,” Johnson said. “We are a nation with borders and these borders cannot be open to illegal migration.”
Johnson reflected on his own experiences of seeing immigrant children and refugees.
“I have spent hours meeting and talking with hundreds of children in border patrol processing centers on our southern border, in a refugee camp in Turkey,” Johnson said. “I don’t mind telling you that it has brought me to tears.”
Johnson said that, although he wanted to help all the refugee children, as a policymaker he needed to make decisions that were not purely driven by his personal values.
“As a father and a Christian, I personally want to scoop up all these kids and take them home with me, but we cannot formulate government policy based solely on my personal reaction to a painful situation,” Johnson said.
Johnson stressed the importance of being able to make foreign service and national security decisions that are not fully in line with an individual’s morals.
“In foreign service there will be times when you will be asked to form alliances with governments with a less-than-perfect human rights record,” Johnson said. “In national security, there will be times where we must send good young men and woman into harm’s way.”
In closing, Johnson said it is necessary for individuals to remain accountable and persevere in the face of obstacles.
“Resignation relieves you of your personal dilemma, makes a forceful statement, but may not be good for the country or a lot of people who depend on you as their leader,” Johnson said. “This is a burden you must be prepared to accept in public service and as a leader.”
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.