Immigration

Obama's DHS Secretary Shouted Down at Commencement Address Over Mass Raids on Immigrant Youth

Protesters calling for "Education not deportation!" disrupt Department of Homeland Security secretary.

Jeh Johnson
Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

Since the beginning of 2016, Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson has overseen a significant escalation in mass raids targeting refugees and immigrants primarily from Central American countries, including the detention of teenagers on their way to school and children as young as four.

So when Johnson was invited as an honored guest to address young people at the graduation ceremony for the Nashville-based Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School on Saturday night, some community members were understandably outraged. A small group of protesters decided to take matters into their own hands and disrupt Johnson’s speech. According to a press release from the advocacy group #Not1MoreDeportation, which coordinated the action, some of the protesters were “the teachers of 9 high schoolers who have been held in detention since early 2016” and backed by numerous supporters.

Video footage shows the protesters interrupting Johnson’s speech with calls for “Education not deportation!” and cries of “Stop the raids!” They can be seen carrying large banners calling for an end to mass deportations. Participants in the direct action temporarily interrupted the ceremony before they were escorted out by police.

Once they were kicked out, they joined dozens of protesters with local organizations, Workers’ Dignity and Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, who rallied and distributed informational leaflets outside.

Holly Hardin is a teacher who traveled from Durham, North Carolina to participate in the protest. “It is troublesome that he is talking to high school students who are graduating, since most students in detention were supposed to be graduating this May or June as well," Hardin told AlterNet. "When Immigration and Customs Enforcement keeps kids from our classrooms directly through detention, or indirectly through the fear and trauma my students experience that friends and families will be taken in the raids, I can't teach them. So it was important for me to be in Nashville and let Johnson know his far-reaching impact."

The protests came amid fresh revelations that the Obama administration plans to unleash another wave of deportations in May and June, focused on the mass eviction of hundreds of mothers and children. The mass evictions are particularly inhumane given the U.S. role in stoking violence and poverty in Central American countries, from the 2009 coup in Honduras to the 2004 Central American Free Trade Agreement.

“In January, during the first series of raids, it sent waves of fear across immigrant communities in Nashville and Tennessee,” Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, told AlterNet. “Since the announcement that Johnson is initiating another series of raids, our phones are ringing off the hook and families are worried about their communities. It is outrageous that Johnson would be addressing the commencement, as many of our undocumented members who are feeling the fear from raids were present in the audience that day. Someone who is responsible for tearing families apart is talking about investing in students’ futures.”

“It’s hard knowing that main guy that deports families is in Nashville and at our school,” Naomi Sepulveda, an eighth-grader in Metro Nashville public schools, said in a press statement. “I want him away. It hurts me. It hurts me as much as how it hurt when my uncle was deported. And if my parents were ever deported, who would help me? I’m a young girl, my brother is still a kid and I’m his big sister. My parents didn’t bring my brother and me to the U.S. to fool around, we came for a better future.”

Meanwhile, across the country in Santa Ana, California, immigrant and LGBTQ leaders announced Monday that they are beginning a hunger strike to demand that their city jail stop contracting with ICE, which they say “allows the city to profit from the detention of undocumented immigrants, including transgender women.” The protesters are also demanding the immediate release of transgender women from immigrant detention centers across the United States.

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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