Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan was shouted offstage by protesters as he attempted to give the keynote address during an immigration conference at Georgetown University's law school on Monday.
McAleenan, who made several failed attempts to begin his speech at the Migration Policy's Institute's annual Immigration Law and Policy Conference, was shouted down by several activists and Georgetown law students in the audience who were protesting the Trump administration's immigration policies.
Before McAleenan could begin speaking at the podium, demonstrators stood up holding a banner that read "Hate is not normal," and chanted, "When immigrants are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back! When children are under attack, what do we do? Stand up and fight back! When democracy is under attack, what do we do? Stand up and fight back!"
Some Georgetown law students also read the names of children and other migrants who have died while in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after being detained at the border. After each name was read, protesters in the audience yelled out "presente," which is Spanish for "present."
For nearly eight minutes, McAleenan stood at the podium and managed to get in a handful of sentences before being interrupted and drowned out by the protesters.
"We’ll give it one more shot," McAleenan told the audience as he began speaking for a third time. "As a career law enforcement professional, I've dedicated my carer to protecting the right to free speech and all the values we hold dear in America from all threats."
"Bullshit!" someone in the audience yelled, prompting laughter from some attendees.
"So we'll go ahead and try one more time..." McAleenan said as someone yelled, "Liar."
"But otherwise," McAleenan continued, "I'm going to go back to work and keep trying to secure this country."
However, protesters once again began shouting out the names of migrants who have died in DHS custody.
Doris Meissner, the director of US immigration policy at the Migration Policy Institute, — a nonpartisan organization — pleaded several times with the demonstrators to allow McAleenan to talk and asked them to save their criticisms for the question-and-answer session after his speech.
Meissner later began admonishing them for "robbing the rest of the audience of an opportunity to engage in a dialogue that is important to have on a university campus." She also asked some of the vocal protesters to leave and take their demonstration outside.
Some members of the audience clapped after Meissner's attempts to stop the demonstrators.
A visibly irritated McAleenan then made one last attempt to speak.
"There's some very serious issues we can talk about, in candor, in a real dialogue, or we can continue to shout," he 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 added that since the audience comprised immigration lawyers, advocates, and law students, he also wanted to discuss "some of the fundamental issues we face with the current legal framework" before he was shouted down by the protesters once again.
McAleenan then thanked Meissner and exited the stage, prompting light applause from some attendees.
In a statement, DHS blamed the "disruptions of a few activists" for depriving the audience of an opportunity to "engage in a robust dialogue" with McAleenan.
"The First Amendment guarantees all Americans the right to free speech and assembly," the statement said. "Unfortunately that right was robbed from many who were scheduled to speak and attend today’s event at Georgetown."
The DHS posted McAleenan's prepared remarks online.
MPI's president, Andrew Selee, said it was regrettable that McAleenan's keynote address was "disrupted by protesters."
"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," Selee said in a statement.
Echoing MPI's statement, the dean of Georgetown University Law Center, William Treanor, said, "We share our partner's regret that we did not get to hear from the secretary."
"Georgetown Law is committed to free speech and expression and the ability of speakers to be heard and engage in dialogue," Treanor said in his statement.
Dean Treanor of Georgetown Law is less than pleased about @DHSMcAleenan being booed out of #immconf by protestors. Unfortunate that he repeatedly references freedom of speech, which obviously is not applicable to a private university.
Sabiya Ahamed, a 24-year-old Georgetown law student and one of the protest organizers, told BuzzFeed News Monday that she had not anticipated McAleenan being driven offstage by the protest, but added that "it was a pleasant outcome" for her.
Ahamed said that she expected protesters, including herself, to be kicked out of the venue within a few minutes of their demonstration.
"That didn't happen," she said. "We were able to continue to voice our opinion ... and McAleenan decided to leave. It wasn't the result I personally foresaw, but I was really glad that was the result."
After Georgetown law students were informed that McAleenan was slated to be the keynote speaker at the immigration forum, Ahamed and a handful of other students organized themselves into a group called the #ICEfreeGULC Coalition.
They delivered a petition to the Georgetown law dean to disinvite McAleenan. The petition currently has more than 375 signatures from Georgetown Law students, faculty members, and alumni, Ahamed said.
However, when the dean refused to disinvite McAleenan, the students coordinated with other immigration advocacy groups, including CREDO, Sanctuary DMV, La ColectiVA, and Justice for Muslims Collective, to organize a protest during McAleenan's speech.
Ahamed said that it was "especially egregious" that McAleenan was invited to be the keynote speaker.
"Giving him any kind of platform is normalizing the things he has done," Ahamed said, adding that the DHS policies were "racist" and had ended up "killing people."
"To say that someone who has been implementing these policies deserves to have a stage to explain what he has done and why... in my mind there is no justification for it," Ahamed said.
Heidi Li Feldman, a law professor at Georgetown who promoted the student-led protest on her Twitter account, tweeted Monday that she was "thankful" that McAleenan had left the stage, owing to the "utter inappropriateness" of him being the keynote speaker.
Feldman was critical of the "shameless insistence" of the Georgetown Law administration and MPI to honor McAleenan with the keynote address.
Thankful this happened, given that organizers refused to heed persuasive discussion from colleagues about the utter inappropriateness of having Acting Sec McAleenan keynote. #immconf 1/
"We cannot have rule of law if law schools do not distinguish between constrained governance and lawless executive power," she added.