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  6. Remarks by Secretary Jeh Johnson at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service Undergraduate Commencement

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Remarks by Secretary Jeh Johnson at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service Undergraduate Commencement

Release Date: May 21, 2016

As Delivered
May 21, 2016

Mr. President, Dean, faculty, administrators, graduates, and your families. Thank you very much for the honor you bestow on me today, and for the opportunity to be your commencement speaker.

There are Hoyas in my family.  My wife is a graduate of the Georgetown Dental School, class of 1986.  

{interruption from audience}

To those of you who are our international guests: welcome to our wonderful, and sometimes noisy, democracy.

When I was first asked to speak to the School of Foreign Service, I turned to my international affairs team.  I asked them to help me develop a speech about the increasing internationalization of homeland security, and to convey, in this age of the foreign terrorist fighter, the increasing need for diplomacy as a component of homeland security.  By working with other nations to secure their borders from foreign terrorist travel, we secure our own homeland.

In the meantime, as we just saw, there has been a controversy that has arisen on this campus as a result of the invitation to be your commencement speaker.  

After meeting with students on Monday, I decided to scrap the prior approach and address the immediate issue, that you saw, head-on.  In the process, I believe I can deliver on the request to talk about the manner in which today’s government leaders grapple with difficult issues of national and homeland security.  These remarks were written by me and me alone.   

First: to the students and alumni who object to me and our immigration policy, I admire your energy and passion.  I hope you continue in your cause.  Your level of activism and commitment is something I encourage in my own college-age children.  In this free country, you have an important role, your views matter, and they contribute to the policymaking of our government.  And, do not become disheartened if others oppose you.

It is true that I head the Department of our government that is responsible for the administration and enforcement of our immigration laws. I shall not shrink from that.  

When I took this job, I accepted an obligation to enforce the law consistent with the enforcement priorities of President Obama’s Administration.  What does that mean?  Let’s take a closer look.

Two years ago President Obama directed me to revise our immigration enforcement policies, to make them more humane and fair.  And, in November 2014 we announced new policies that more clearly prioritize public safety and border security.  

In fact, therefore, fewer people are now deported from this country and a higher percentage of them are within our priorities for removal, and are convicted criminals.

In fact, President Obama and I want to expand upon his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy – also called DACA -- and make others eligible for deferred action: adults who’ve been here for five years, have kids who are citizens or lawful permanent residents, have committed no serious crime, and who submit to a background check.  This is the new “DAPA” policy the President and I announced in November 2014.  

This effort is in the Supreme Court right now, and we are fighting to defend it.      

At the same time, we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities for enforcement.  

If someone who is a priority for removal has received a final order of removal, has no pending appeal, and has not qualified for asylum or other humanitarian relief under our laws, we must repatriate them. There are many who strongly disagree with this.  But, we are a nation with borders, and these borders cannot be open to illegal migration.

Is sending a man, woman or child back to the very situation they fled pleasant?  No.    

As government officials and leaders, we try to do the right thing.  

Doing the right thing can be complicated. In government decision-making and policy-making, doing the right thing is rarely simple, pure or perfect.  It’s rarely one-dimensional, or even two-dimensional.  It’s often multi-dimensional.  And one of those dimensions can be your personal convictions.  

In 29 months in this office, I’ve spent hours meeting and talking with hundreds of children in Border Patrol processing centers on our southern border, in a refugee camp in Turkey, and, just yesterday and the day before, in resettlement centers in El Salvador and Honduras.  

I don’t mind telling you it has brought me to tears.  

As a father and a Christian, I personally want to scoop all these kids up and take them home with me.  But we cannot formulate government policy based solely on my personal reaction to a painful situation.  

 President Obama said something similar in his commencement address at Howard two weeks ago.  Government decision-making and policy-making involve compromise – a compromise between and among different considerations.

In foreign service, there will be times when you will be asked to form alliances with governments with a less than perfect human rights record.

In foreign service, there may be times when you must sit down with a government or organization that is actively working to undermine U.S. interests.  

In national security, there will be times when we must send good young men and women into harm’s way.  

In national security, there will be times when we must authorize military force in circumstances where innocent people may die.

In 2010, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen announced publicly his personal opposition to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law that prohibited gays from serving openly in the military.  Admiral Mullen stated his opposition as a matter of integrity – theirs and ours.  As a matter of integrity, he could no longer ask other service members to lie about who they are.

Many agreed, and insisted that we immediately suspend separations under what they believed was an unjust and unconstitutional law.  But Admiral Mullen and the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who were stewards of a military force of about two million people, knew there were larger considerations.  They commissioned a 10-month study of the issue in which we surveyed 400,000 service members. At the end, by this deliberate, thorough approach, we convinced the military community and skeptics in Congress that we could repeal the law.

That repeal went even smoother than we predicted, and contributed, I believe, to the shift in public opinion that followed, toward LGBT rights and gay marriage.

The greatest moral leader of modern times in this country, my Morehouse brother Martin Luther King, had to at times compromise his own principles and disappoint his supporters.  

Many of you know about “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma Alabama, on March 7, 1965.  Many of you know about the successful Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights that began two weeks later, on March 21, 1965.

Far fewer know about the aborted march in between, on what is referred to as “Turnaround Tuesday.”

In reaction to the televised beatings of the civil rights marchers by police on Bloody Sunday, many energized civil rights advocates rushed to Selma to take up the cause and resume the march.  Led by Dr. King, they were prepared to face the same beatings their comrades had suffered two days before.    

Inexplicably to his followers, Dr. King led them across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, knelt in prayer before the line of police, and then led the marchers in a U-turn back across the bridge.  Many of the marchers were prepared to put their bodies on the line, were furious at Dr. King, and felt tricked and betrayed by him.  

But, Dr. King had quietly concluded that he did not want to violate a federal temporary restraining order, and alienate the judge who had issued it, who, Dr. King believed would eventually see it their way.   In retrospect, Dr. King was right.  Judge Frank Johnson lifted his temporary restraining order, which paved the way for the now-famous Selma to Montgomery march, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and a more perfect union.  

Even closer to home for me is a story of a man who died 60 years ago named Charles S. Johnson.  Dr. Johnson was a sociologist and president of Fisk University, a black college in Nashville, Tennessee.  In 1950, Fisk needed a good mathematician on the faculty, and Dr. Johnson hired a gifted teacher named Lee Lorch.  Lorch was white, and a committed civil rights activist who was willing to teach at a black college.  Lorch was also suspected of being a Communist.    

For years, during the height of the McCarthy era, Johnson stood by Lorch.  It was a matter of principle.  Johnson was even suspected of being a Communist himself.  Testifying before federal and state legislative Un-American Activities committees, Johnson -- a World War One veteran with honorary degrees from Harvard and Columbia – publicly denied he was a member of the Communist Party.  Johnson also said publicly what he thought about these investigations: that they were “witch hunts” and “much more un-American than the un-American activities being pursued.”  

But, after years of defending Lorch, in 1955 Johnson had to set aside his principles and terminate Lorch’s contract, to protect Fisk University, its reputation, its financial standing, and its future.   

For my grandfather, this was an agonizing decision that we never talk about in my family, and that, according to a good friend, contributed to my grandfather’s fatal heart attack in 1956, at the age of 63.  

But, today, 60 years later, among many small black colleges that struggle to survive, Fisk continues to exist, financed in very large part by a $100 million art collection assembled by my grandfather for the school while he was president.

When an action we are called to take offends our personal convictions, we can resign.  But, abandoning your responsibility only passes the burden to someone else – and possibly someone less thoughtful, less sensitive and more callous.  Resignation relieves you of your personal dilemma, makes a forceful statement, but may not be good for the country or a lot of people who depend on you as their leader.

This is a burden you must be prepared to accept in public service, and as a leader.

Sometimes our options are plenty.  Sometimes our options are limited and lousy.  But, at all times we try our best to find the best solution and do the right thing.  

In a democracy, we are then judged by the voters who elect us, or elect the person to whom we are accountable.  Ultimately, we are judged in the pages of history, and by God.

There are graduates here who have stated publicly that they do not want to shake my hand.  That is your right and your privilege.  I am willing to extend my hand to every one of you.

In our democracy, the people do not owe their government leaders any form of reverence.  If anything, in this country it’s the other way round.   We are public servants.  We work for you.

A year ago I met a man named Kamal.  Kamal is from Syria.  Kamal and his family have been granted refugee status in this country, and now live in Texas.  Kamal says that, while living in Syria, he was persecuted and put in military detention, where he was sexually assaulted, subject to electric shocks, and had his kidney removed without his consent.  When I met Kamal, he told me “my regime tortured me.”  

I said to Kamal, “welcome to the United States, I am your new regime, and no one here is going to torture you.” I then shook his hand, and gave him a hug.

To this graduating class from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, I have not said much about the “foreign” aspect of foreign service, but I do hope that I have conveyed to all of you what it means to be in service – service to others, service to the public.  

I’ve talked a lot about the burden and responsibility of service, but the truth is, I love what I do.

For most of my career I have been a corporate lawyer.  For less than a third of my career I’ve been in public service.  Though I now make less than a 1st year associate at the corporate law firm where I was previously a partner, my public service has been the most consequential and gratifying part of my professional life.  

I expect to go back to private law practice soon.  But, no matter how many cases or clients I win in private practice, I know the first paragraph of my obituary will be my public service.  

Public service is about helping others, and within almost all of us as human beings is the basic desire to do good and help others.

When you leave here many of you will acquire the burden of student loan debt, a mortgage, and a financial responsibility to yourself and your family.  My hope for all of you, as proceed today on your journey from here, is that you never lose the spark that motivated you to come to this school in the first place.

Thank you very much.


Last Updated: 09/20/2018
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