WASHINGTON — Kevin K. McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, was forced offstage at Georgetown University’s law school by demonstrators who shut down his planned keynote address as they protested the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Almost immediately after McAleenan was introduced to give a speech hosted by the Migration Policy Institute, nearly a dozen advocates and law students in the crowd stood up holding signs saying “Stand with immigrants” and “Hate is not normal.” Standing at the lectern in front of the packed auditorium, McAleenan tried to start speaking but was drowned out by chants of “When immigrants are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.”
The protesters also read the names of migrants who have died after being detained at the border.
The event was the latest effort by opponents of the administration’s hard-line immigration policies to let their grievances be known to the policy makers carrying them out. Last year, Stephen Miller, one of the chief architects of President Trump’s immigration policies, threw away $80 worth of takeout sushi, fearing that it had been spat on after a Washington bartender screamed at him. Protesters heckled the last confirmed homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, last year as she ate at a Mexican restaurant.
“The First Amendment guarantees all Americans the right to free speech and assembly,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement. “Unfortunately that right was robbed from many who were scheduled to speak and attend today’s event at Georgetown.”
On Monday, Doris Meissner, the director of US immigration policy at the Migration Policy Institute and a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, pleaded with protesters to allow McAleenan to speak. She told them they were “robbing” other members of the audience who came to hear him. The demonstrators said that people at the border were being robbed of their lives.
McAleenan waited for the chants to quiet down and tried to speak at least three times. Visibly frustrated, he thanked Meissner before walking off the stage. Some people in the audience also expressed disappointment with the protesters. McAleenan was scheduled to take questions from attendees after his remarks.
“There are some very serious issues that we can talk about in candor in a real dialogue, or we can continue to shout,” McAleenan said. “I’d like to take our dialogue today above the politics and the daily news cycle and talk about the challenges and efforts that we’ve faced over the past year.”
He said that he especially looked forward to the conversation since immigration lawyers, law students, and advocates were in the crowd, before being drowned out by the protesters, who justified their actions.
“It’s our belief that no institution should be elevating, normalizing or legitimizing any of the Trump immigration officials who are quite honestly carrying out policies that are rooted in the white nationalism that Donald Trump and Stephen Miller are so blatantly trying to institutionalize,” said Nicole Regalado, the campaign director at Credo Action, an advocacy organization, which helped organize the protest.
She said more than a dozen organizations sent the organizers of the event a letter requesting that McAleenan’s invitation be rescinded. About 350 Georgetown law students, faculty members, and alumni also signed a separate petition asking for his removal.
Regalado said that the organizations specifically took issue with McAleenan’s role in carrying out the administration’s family separation policy, which resulted in more than 2,600 children being removed from their parents.
Before he was tapped to lead the Department of Homeland Security, McAleenan was the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection during the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, said the organization regretted that McAleenan was silenced.
“By drowning out the secretary’s remarks, the protesters 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,” Selee said in a statement.
Sabiya Ahamed, a third-year law student at Georgetown focusing on immigration policy, said there was “nothing to debate.”
“If we want to see his remarks, we can just look to his polices,” Ahamed said. “They speak louder than his words.”
McAleenan has led the Department of Homeland Security, which is tasked with disaster relief, securing the country’s borders, and defending the United States from terrorism and cyberattacks, at a time when the agency has become increasingly synonymous with the Trump administration’s pursuit to limit legal and illegal immigration to the United States.
Under his leadership, the agency has expanded a policy that forces migrants to wait in Mexico for the duration of their asylum case and pushed multiple deals that prevent most migrants from Central America from obtaining asylum at the southwest border. McAleenan has instead tried to push the migrants to obtain protections in Central American countries.
McAleenan, who worked in Customs and Border Protection under President Barack Obama, has also pushed back against some of the administration’s policies, including its attempt to carry out nationwide raids to deport migrant families.