Jeh Johnson was Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama.
Jeh Johnson was Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama. Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Family detention, a policy revived in 2014 by U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, has irrevocably damaged thousands of families, including separating over 2,600 children from their parents or caregivers. Despite this, Seattle CityClub, a supposedly-progressive nonprofit dedicated to civic health in our region, has invited former Secretary Johnson to be their keynote speaker at their annual fundraiser on June 18.

We have had our own conversations with the organization’s leaders about Secretary Johnson, especially in light of his recently-canceled commencement speech at the University of South California’s Gould School of Law. However, Seattle CityClub has declined to reconsider, even admitting in their public statement that this decision may “cost us the respect of some of those in the immigrant and refugee community.”

Indeed, it has. As an immigrant myself, my heart races each time I step outside. I must resist the urge to constantly look over my shoulder. I’m afraid. I’m afraid of someone armed with a badge, yet no warrant, who is still able to put me behind bars. The immigration climate in this country is nothing but violent, and Secretary Johnson’s name is carved into its foundation.

Secretary Johnson served from 2013-2017 and personally reintroduced family detention as an attempt to deter mostly women and children from crossing the border. Under his watch, Berks County Residential Center detained 22 mothers with their children for over 260 days awaiting a determination on their case. Psychologists and pediatricians with Human Rights First found these children, ages 2-16, suffering from “depression, behavioral regression, and anxiety.” These mothers banded together and went on a hunger strike until they were released. In fact, towards the end of his tenure, the DHS Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers unanimously found that not only was care in immigrant detention severely lacking but that “DHS should discontinue the general use of family detention” altogether.

But family detention was not discontinued. In fact, it was radically escalated by the Trump administration. Children have been put in isolation for days, kept in vans in the sweltering Texas heat for up to 39 hours, and endured months of imprisonment waiting for their case to even be seen by a judge. Three people have died in immigration custody since the beginning of June. I’m writing this on June 4.

Even in Washington State, where we have just passed landmark legislation barring the collaboration between ICE and local law enforcement, ICE and CBP agents have prowled courthouses to arrest people they suspect are undocumented. For the most part, these individuals are mothers and fathers attending hearings for minor infractions, such as driving without insurance. In one instance, an immigration officer purposefully eavesdropped on an undocumented man’s conversation with his lawyer, arresting him after his hearing.

The fundraiser’s theme is “Civility and Security.” But there is nothing civil about ripping families apart. There is nothing secure about children overheating in the Texas sun. A middle ground cannot be reached between death and discourse.

Support The Stranger

Seattle CityClub strives for increased civic engagement. But no matter the topic, authentic engagement cannot be led by someone so central to a deadly, inhumane, and unjust policy. By positioning Secretary Johnson as the face of their biggest annual fundraiser and ignoring the demands of the directly impacted community, Seattle CityClub is fostering no such engagement. Instead, they are selling immigrant lives for $75 a ticket. Seattle cannot distinguish itself as a safe place for immigrants when civics organizations like Seattle CityClub so willingly welcome the enemy into our own home.

I condemn Seattle CityClub’s decision to give the architect of this horrific, immoral, and deadly detention system a platform and demand they rescind their invitation. If you support Seattle’s immigrant community, join me on Tuesday, June 18, at 11 am at 721 Pine Street outside the fundraiser to protest Seattle CityClub’s decision. Seattle will reject agents of the deportation machine.

Ray Carona is an immigrant activist and founder of the Washington Dream Coalition