This past Monday, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attempted to deliver remarks but was unable to do so at an annual immigration law and policy conference, jointly hosted by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, and Georgetown University Law Center (GULC). The event took place on GULC’s main campus.
McAleenan tried three times to speak to audiences but was interrupted by shouting protesters each time. Protesters stood up, loudly declaring, “When immigrants come under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.”
Amidst the screaming, McAleenan sought to steer the conversation back to its intellectual nexus, asserting, “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 continued by stating that he would “like to take the dialogue above the politics and the daily news cycle,” including an examination of “some of the fundamental issues we face with the current legal framework and its ability to address large-scale immigration flows.”
The protesters were a mix of activists, including some from leftist grassroots organizations such as CREDO, as well as others from the Georgetown Law student body. A representative of CREDO told the Hill that the purpose of the protest “was to prevent McAleenan from having a platform to normalizing Trump’s cruel immigration policies and spreading hatred.”
As an alumna of Middlebury College, I am no stranger to this type of manufactured, highly orchestrated disorder. One year after I graduated Middlebury College, the club of which I was a founding member had the audacity to invite Charles Murray to lecture on his 2012 book “Coming Apart,” a treatise on the growing divide between urban and rural America.
As the father of a 2007 Middlebury graduate, Murray had spoken before at the college, albeit to little fanfare. But prior to his 2016 visit, 18 pages of his 1994 hallmark tome “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure” became hotly contested due to its discussion of racial variations in average IQ.
The Middlebury protests, mostly organized by self-appointed “Resistance” professors and buttressed by outside agitators, swiftly turned violent. The professor who interviewed Murray suffered a serious injury, while angry crowds surrounded Murray’s vehicle as he attempted to depart from the lecture, one person even throwing a stop sign with a heavy cement base in front of the vehicle. Campus safety described the event as a “very, very dangerous situation.”
Thankfully, McAleenan’s event did not devolve into violence. Yet, there’s still an inarguable grimness in the fact that we have approached an era in which spaces traditionally reserved for intellectual wrestling, such as academic conferences, are now shops of intellectual silencing. These events reveal the frustrating inability of some within the current generation of rising activists to engage with anyone whom they have deemed to be “evil.”
There is a reason the more outlandish figures on the left compared immigration centers at the U.S. border to concentration camps. It wasn’t for historical accuracy, for this analogy is highly offensive and wrong—it was to conjure the memory of something so horrible and horrific as to depict anyone who might try to have a reasonable debate on immigration as “intellectualizing” something akin to Nazism. Such an analogy, in all its terribleness, was designed to silence any discussion on how to address the situation at the border.
The protests at this particular conference represented a similar approach. Some of the protesters’ signs featured phrases, such as “My favorite season is the fall of white supremacy,” while others argued “No human being is illegal #ICEfreeGULC.” This isn’t about having a reasoned policy discussion on immigration, it’s about refracting the immigration issue through the prism of good and evil. And with enough reductionism, nebulous terms, and repeated euphemisms, it just might work.
But immigration is much more complicated than simply opening the border or closing the border. It’s also intellectually lazy to reduce immigration to a question of race. Rather, immigration represents the complex intersection of economic, social, and cultural issues that should be considered and addressed. I believe we strongly need immigration reform, one that respects both the humanity of individuals and the contours of our borders, and our current immigration system is not meeting that benchmark. However, reform cannot take place if one side is simply unwilling to appreciate the complexities of the issue.
As Michelle Mittelstadt, a spokeswoman for MPI, emphasized, “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.”
The Department of Homeland Security, like all administrative agencies, is imperfect. But the willingness of the acting secretary to attend this conference demonstrates that at least one party to the debate is willing to open the floor to conversation. Indeed, McAleenan’s event had a scheduled question and answer session, which never took place because protesters decided screaming “White supremacy!” was a more effective tool of change than engaging with actual decisionmakers head-on.
There is nothing wrong with protesting a speaker. One of the great features of American liberty is our right to protest. But to completely silence a speaker on the basis of disagreeing with his or her point of view (which, ironically, was never shared but merely assumed from his position in an executive agency under Trump) may lead to a dark road of intellectual suppression.
Following the botched event, Dean William Treanor sent a mass email, emphasizing that Georgetown was “deeply committed to freedom of speech” and that the school does “not limit speech—either on the content of the view or the person expressing the view.” In an era where activists are increasingly challenging this commitment by silencing (not protesting) speakers, it is evermore important that leaders highlight their determination to protect intellectual dialogue by refusing to coddle the American mind. As a Yiddish proverb states, “A nation’s treasure is its scholars.”