Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan walked off the stage at a speaking engagement at Georgetown Law School on Monday after being shouted down by audience members protesting the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
McAleenan was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at an annual immigration law and policy conference hosted by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) and Georgetown Law, at the Washington, D.C., university. But before he even began to talk, protesters stood up and shouted: "When immigrants come under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!"
Some in the audience shouted at the protesters to sit down so they could hear the DHS acting secretary speak. Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at MPI who served as a top immigration official under the Clinton administration, was to moderate the Q&A, and told the protesters they were robbing the audience of their ability to engage in a meaningful dialogue on a contentious and important topic.
DHS, in a written statement released afterward, echoed those concerns: "The First Amendment guarantees all Americans the right to free speech and assembly. Unfortunately that right was robbed from many who were scheduled to speak and attend today’s event at Georgetown. Unfortunately the Acting Secretary and the audience did not get the opportunity to engage in a robust dialogue this morning due to the disruptions of a few activists."
The department, which published the secretary's prepared remarks, said those in attendance would have "learned more about DHS’s successful strategy to work with international partners to reduce unlawful migration and end the exploitation of children by smugglers and cartels, and then they would have had the opportunity to participate in an unmoderated question and answer session."
McAleenan, a longtime civil servant who was the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection before he was tapped to lead DHS, tried three times to start his speech, but was interrupted almost immediately by the demonstrators on each occasion. As McAleenan tried to speak, protesters stood and held banners with phrases like "Hate is Not Normal" and shouted out the names of children who had died in immigration custody.
"Lot to cover today, there's some very serious issues that we can talk about today in candor, or we can continue to shout,” McAleenan said on his third attempt. “What I was going to start with was that I’d like to take our dialogue this morning above the politics and the daily news cycle, talk about the challenges and efforts we’ve faced over the past year, but also that this is primarily an audience of immigration lawyers, advocates and students, to talk about some of the fundamental issues we face with the current legal framework.”
Protesters once again began to shout him down, leading McAleenan to thank the conference’s moderators and walk off the stage — after appearing for a little over seven minutes.
"In a democracy, it is important to hear from all sides on public policy issues, including from those who are instrumental in developing and implementing policy, whether or not we agree with them, and MPI remains committed to that belief,” MPI President Andrew Selee said in a statement.
Selee added: "By drowning out the Secretary’s remarks, the protestors deprived immigration attorneys, service providers, journalists, advocates, business leaders, law students, and many others in the public who were in the audience from hearing his point of view and engaging in a meaningful dialogue.”
The protests against McAleenan were led by CREDO Action – the advocacy arm of the progressive nonprofit group CREDO – which last week sent the conference’s organizers a letter asking them to rescind their invitation to the acting DHS secretary.
“The Trump administration’s immigration policies are cruel, racist and rooted in the white nationalist hate Donald Trump and Stephen Miller are so blatantly trying to institutionalize,” the group said in a letter, which was signed by CREDO Action and a number of other progressive groups. “People like McAleenan who are carrying out and championing these policies should not be treated as if their positions on immigration are reasonable or legitimate in any way.”
Homeland Security is the department that manages immigration enforcement and is largely responsible for implementing many of the massive changes pushed by the Trump administration that has restricted asylum, required more than 50,000 migrants to wait in Mexico and added hurdles for those seeking green cards. Since December, officials have been grappling with a massive influx of migrants that vastly strained the system. At least seven children have died after they were taken into immigration custody.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.