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Georgetown Debates Free Speech, Immigration and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson

What constitutes free speech is at the heart of a recent controversy at Georgetown University over the upcoming commencement speech of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service (SFS) recently announced that Johnson would speak at its commencement ceremony and receive an honorary degree this coming Saturday, May 21.

On May 9, a group of 30 undocumented students and their supporters delivered a letter to the SFS Deans asking them to rescind Johnson's invitation, which they deemed "a step backward" from Georgetown's leadership in supporting undocumented students.

In the letter, they condemned current deportation policies and the reopening of family detention centers run by a for-profit corporation.

"Not only do these actions turn their back on (Georgetown's) Jesuit values, but we firmly believe that Secretary Johnson's presence at commencement would create an unsafe environment," the letter read.

One-on-one with DHS Secy. Jeh Johnson 3:03

Just last month, Georgetown participated in National Institutions Coming Out Day and launched a website with resources and guidance for undocumented students and the unique challenges they face. The students said inviting Johnson "felt like a slap in the face."

As of publication, over 700 people had signed an online petition started by SFS '08 alumna Hemly Ordoñez, who condemned Johnson's immigration policies and called the invitation an insult to her family and those of undocumented students and alumni.

Georgetown senior Reed Howard created a counter-petition to protect free speech on campus, calling the protests "a dangerous attempt" to silence alternative viewpoints. "If we could invite someone to be the commencement speaker with whom everyone in the audience agrees with 100 percent, then that person wouldn't have much worth saying in the first place," Howard said.

Howard created a Facebook event to promote his petition and encourage dialogue. But the page ultimately revealed an even deeper divide among students over immigration and legal status.

"If you are an illegal immigrant you have no right to be in the United States, and no right to be at Georgetown," wrote one commenter.

Protect Free of Speech at George University Facebook Event
Protect Free of Speech at George University Facebook Event Protect Free of Speech at George University

Rio Dijwandana, SFS senior and beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program shielding about 700,000 young immigrants here illegally from deportation, said the "xenophobic, racist, and anti-immigrant" posts were eye-opening for him."I didn't realize many of (my classmates) were so vehemently against ​my existence in this country and/or my being allowed to attend and graduate from Georgetown," he said.

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In an official statement, the university acknowledged the concerns of students but defended its decision to honor Johnson for his engagement in global issues, including migration, terrorism, and disaster response.

"Throughout his long career, Jeh Johnson has been at the center of these complex challenges, displaying leadership in seeking to find viable and politically tractable solutions to these issues, often facing criticisms from throughout the political spectrum," the statement reads.

A small group of undocumented students met with the SFS Deans on May 12 and Johnson himself on May 16. One student who attended and preferred to remain unnamed due to her immigration status said: "I found [Johnson] to be a generally agreeable and reasonable person; however, he is directly responsible for harming my community in very real and violent ways."

Image: Prospective students tour Georgetown University's campus (File photo)
Prospective students tour Georgetown University's campus in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2013. (File photo) Jacquelyn Martin / AP, file

Gloria García, an alumna donor and senior vice president of external affairs for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, said, referring to Secretary Johnson, "I think that's going to be an interesting dance for him, to talk about what the positives are that they're working toward, but then don't shy away from the 2.9 million (who have been) deported."

García also noted that if there are protests on Saturday, she hopes they remain peaceful. This past weekend, immigration reform advocates disrupted Johnson's graduation speech at a Tennessee high school.

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