On May 16, 2017, Northwestern University Prof. Beth Redbird invited a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement public relations representative on campus as a guest speaker to their sociology course Social Inequality: Race, Class and Power. Despite concerns raised by students, Prof. Redbird and the administration still provided a platform to the ICE representative and thus legitimized its state-sanctioned power. Due to Northwestern’s commitment to be a sanctuary campus and the inherent danger of the presence of ICE, we as the Coalition of Students for Immigrant Justice did what was necessary to prioritize the safety of our immigrant community through our demands and actions.
We condemn Professor Redbird’s reckless decision to escort and invite an ICE representative to this campus, despite student concerns, and are appalled by University President Morton Schapiro and Provost Dan Linzer’s statement of support that further legitimizes this platform. The University statement ignores the trauma of undocumented and racialized peoples and the perpetuation of violence hidden behind the harmful rhetoric of “academic freedom of speech.” Moreover, President Schapiro has continually emphasized his support for undocumented immigrants and safe spaces, but this statement reveals a grave lack of commitment to these sentiments. Under the current U.S. administration, this lack of recognition is unacceptable.
ICE is an organization entrenched in violence. About “380,000 to 442,000 people are detained every year” and “over 60 percent of people are held in privately-run immigration detention facilities.” The welcoming of an ICE representative to an institution that claims support for its undocumented students and to the sanctuary city of Evanston is more harmful than edifying. ICE should not have “free expression” in the classroom, when it has free — and profitable — expression of institutionalized racism in detention centers across the country.
In response to the Muslim ban, President Schapiro addressed in a statement to the community that “knowledge knows no borders.” Yet, the presence of ICE in Tuesday’s class and subsequent administrative support only re-enacted the violence of the border in the classroom. The University failed to see how pedagogy is entangled with systems of violence, previously exposed by student activists who have successfully campaigned for the divestment from corporations complicit in apartheid and for the investment of academic programs in ethnic studies.
As such, “free expression” and “point of dialogue” obscure the reality that those targeted by ICE are silenced and often detained and deported without due process. The University, in its fierce and uncompromising protection of the “free expression” of ICE, legitimized state-sanctioned violence and, in so doing, undermined the well-being of students, faculty and staff who have been violated by the surveillance and deportation of their families and loved ones. “Academic freedom of speech” must never take precedence when it is quite literally a matter of life and death for undocumented peoples, such that providing a platform only normalize its violent state apparatus. The University cannot disguise violence as pedagogy, when pedagogy cannot protect us from violence.
Therefore, the protest against the presence of ICE was not academic “censorship,” which casually ignores the violence that can be inflicted in the classroom, but a disruption prompted by the silencing of our voices. The University failed on its promise following the November elections of “providing support and reassurance” to those threatened with deportation. Consequently, the demonstrators acted on their responsibility to the community for the protection of all undocumented community members when the University fell short on its promises.
As students, we value academic spaces to learning dissenting views, but cannot compromise the safety of our community members. The myopic rhetoric of “academic freedom” and “hearing the other side” effectively offers up the humanity of undocumented migrants as a valid topic of debate. Regardless of arresting power, the presence of the ICE representative and University support were irresponsible and dangerous to those who are undocumented on this campus and in the Evanston area. Instead, Northwestern University should have stood by its commitment to sanctuary campus values. We cannot stress enough that students in Prof. Redbird’s class were not given the appropriate tools to critically engage in conversations about immigration and much less to engage in a conversation with a representative of a state apparatus, such as ICE. Prof. Redbird should have found an alternative way to teach their students about immigration without legitimizing and giving a platform to an organization which has brutally torn apart undocumented communities.
More than ever, the role of the academic institution is to safeguard spaces for learning both literally and intellectually. We strive to be a campus that provides academic freedom without compromising the personal safety of undocumented community members.
Coalition of Students for Immigrant Justice