Jeh Johnson Withdraws From Commencement Speech After Backlash Over Treatment of Illegal Immigrants

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson / Getty
May 8, 2019

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson withdrew as the commencement speaker for the University of Southern California Gould School of Law after students and faculty protested the Obama administration’s treatment of illegal immigrants during his tenure.

Johnson, who served in the Obama administration from December 2013 through the end of Obama's second term, was informed by USC Gould School of Law Dean Andrew Guzman that several students and faculty members were upset over the Obama administration's handling of the immigration crisis. The controversy over Johnson being the commencement speaker was ignited by two Latino professors at the school, Daria Roithmayr and David Cruz, the Washington Examiner reported.

The two professors penned a letter to Guzman in the middle of April complaining that Johnson helped "normalize state violence."

"USC’s choice to invite Secretary Johnson to speak normalizes illegal state violence. Inviting him to speak to the graduating class legitimates what federal courts and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have recognized as a fundamental betrayal of core values," wrote Roithmayr and Cruz. "Johnson has repeatedly failed to respect legal and moral limits on the use of government-sponsored coercive force, particularly against children, and has demonstrated a morally repugnant willingness to use those who are most vulnerable among us as means to an end."

After Johnson signaled to Guzman last week that he would withdraw as the commencement speaker, Guzman sent a letter to the USC community about the scheduling change.

"I am writing to inform you that our invited keynote speaker, Jeh Johnson, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama, has withdrawn from this year’s USC Gould JD commencement ceremony," Guzman wrote. "I informed Secretary Johnson that some faculty and students have raised concerns about the immigration policies of the Obama Administration and, therefore, about having him as our commencement speaker. Secretary Johnson shared with me that he believes that graduations should be free of tension and political controversy and for this reason has decided not to speak."

Johnson did an interview with National Public Radio last month and admitted the Obama administration took steps to expand detention of illegal immigrant families, citing the surge of illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.–Mexico border from Central America in 2014.

"We expanded family detention. You’re correct. When I was in office, I was surprised to learn that of 34,000 beds, we only had 95 detention beds for families," Johnson said. "So we expanded that, and anecdotally we saw that families were surprised that we had done that and were calling back home to Central America to say that they were being detained."