About a dozen immigrant advocates disrupted Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson at a graduation ceremony over the weekend, following the Obama administration’s renewed calls for a large-scale immigration operation to deport some asylum-seeking Central American mothers and children.
Advocates held signs and shouted “education, not deportation” and “stop the raids” as they walked down the bleacher seats towards Johnson’s podium during Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School’s graduation ceremony in Nashville, Tennessee. Police later escorted them out as the audience cheered.
The protesters included teachers of nine high school students from North Carolina who have been held in immigration detention centers after a previous deportation raid, according to the immigrant rights organization Not1More campaign.
“Ladies and gentlemen, don’t we live in a great country,” Johnson said after the advocates left. “Where young people are advocating for a voice that deserves to be heard right now. I don’t always agree with the merits of the way they do it, but they deserve to be heard.”
“In Washington, immigration is probably the most emotional issue I’ve had to deal with,” Johnson added, noting that he has had to deal with other tough issues like Guantanamo Bay.
The disruption was in response to the Obama administration’s announcement last week that it will begin a 30-day “surge” of immigration raids to target Central Americans who arrived in the country after January 1, 2014.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were specifically called to focus on immigrant mothers and children who have final deportation orders or who have run out of legal options to stay in the country.
Many advocates, including Democratic lawmakers, have already condemned the tactic, saying that deporting women and children seeking asylum in the United States back to their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras could be equivalent to a death sentence.
In January, the administration conducted a similar raid called “Operation Border Guardian” to arrest and detain Central American families primarily living in North Carolina and Georgia. Among those targeted were high school students who were on their way to school.