Going Forward: Who Speaks and Who Listens in the Immigration Conversation?

October 22, 2019 | National

“When immigrants are under attack, what do we do? Stand up. Fight back!”

Standing before an audience of immigration practitioners, policy wonks, advocates, law students and the general public at Georgetown University Law Center, then-Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan struggled to speak over the shouts of protestors. After about five minutes of stop-and-start remarks, he left the stage. By the week’s end, he had left public service entirely.

There was lots of noise about the protests—literal noise as the activists called and responded and conference attendees either applauded their efforts, yelled at them to sit down or murmured “right message, wrong place” from their seats. Digital noise as media both traditional and social picked up the story. The conference organizers chimed in, expressing disappointment at what they saw as a missed opportunity for robust conversation between stakeholders.

From the Department of Homeland Security’s perspective, the disruption amounted to a First Amendment violation. That argument was a little harder to hear; the First Amendment protects individuals from the government censoring their speech, it does not protect government officials from the protests of private individuals. In any event, the Department released McAleenan’s keynote speech.

“Going forward,” he said in his prepared remarks, “[W]e need a higher-minded dialogue on immigration.” In essence, we need to be above the noise.

To be sure, there are interesting points to consider here. There’s the interplay between free speech and academic freedom, and the line drawing both these exercises require. There’s the question of who determines the right message and correct venue, and the question of who speaks and who listens.

But let’s talk for a second about who is invited to be a part of the dialogue, higher-minded or otherwise. And let’s talk about who didn’t get the invite: Children. Children who are telling us they are sick and they are afraid.

Children like 7-year-old Angie, who spent 326 days separated from her father, Adelindo, as a result of the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy. “When you are separated you feel it in your heart,” Angie tells reporter Manuel Bojorquez in “The Faces of Family Separation.” CBS News published the documentary online at about the same time McAleenan took the stage at the immigration conference.

The documentary is a reminder that children have voices and those voices have power. Right now, children are telling us plainly that immigration policy is broken. Are we listening?

Going forward, will we carry the words of our children above the noise?

Watch the documentary here.