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Alex Aleinikoff '74 - Collection

Alex Aleinikoff '74, University Professor and Director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School, delivered the 2019 Alumni Collection address titled“Is the U.S. Still a Country of Refuge?".  He has written widely in the areas of immigration and refugee law and policy, transnational law, citizenship, race, and constitutional law. Aleinikoff has served as United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees and included teaching at the University of Michigan Law School and later at Georgetown University Law Center, where he also served as dean and executive vice president of Georgetown University; co-chairing the Immigration Task Force for President Barack Obama's transition team in 2008; and holding several roles at the Immigration and Naturalization Service. After graduating from Swarthmore with a degree in political science, Aleinikoff earned a J.D. from Yale University, specializing in constitutional and immigration law.

Audio Transcript

Alex Aleinikoff: Thank you, President Smith. Members of the alumni council, awardees, congratulations; fellow Swarthmoreans and friends and Class of 1974.

In 1975, just a year after my class graduated, Joan Baez wrote a song called Winds of the Old Days. Like a number of her songs, it was about Bob Dylan. She was musing about his return to touring and what a generation that had looked to him for inspiration would ask of him now. The song included the line "The '60s are over, so set him free." Well, my class arrived in Swarthmore in 1970, hoping that maybe the '60s could extend for a decade or so. Our spirits soared when we saw a sign in Parrish that said "SDS" on it with an arrow pointing. We were disappointed to learn that it stood for Student Duplicating Service. This was in the days of mimeographing still. There's another line in the Baez song which I want to start these brief remarks with. She sang of memories tumbling like sweets from a jar. And so too my memories tumble out when I am back in this place. As an 11 year old, I sat in this amphitheater at my brother Joe's graduation. He was a member of Archer's class. And my former sister-in-law, class of '64, sitting in the audience today. Thank you.

As an 11 year old I sat here because it was a Swarthmore centennial celebration in 1964, one of which John Kennedy had been invited to speak at. But when his life was cut short that November before, the honor went to President Johnson to give the commencement address. Also receiving honorary degrees that year were W.H. Auden, U Thant, Secretary General of the United Nations, Herman J. Muller who had been a Nobel Prize winner in medicine, and several other luminaries. But only LBJ spoke. No poem from Auden, no words on the world condition from the Secretary General. Can you imagine? Of course, other than the President, these names and their accomplishments were largely lost on me. But my second memory here is more firmly planted. It was a warm and sunny April weekend in 1974 when Bruce Springsteen appeared with the E Street Band. Now I have found online a photo taken that day in this amphitheater in which I am virtually certain that I appeared, sitting cross-legged near the front here with hair to my shoulders. It was a sparse crowd. The newspapers reported that many students were studying in the library. With apologies to Abraham Lincoln, the world will little note no longer remember what LBJ said here, but it will never forget what The Boss played here.

I have no doubt that each of you has memories that come tumbling out when you return here. We each know this college in our own way. But I think we all know it for its commitment to serious academic work, its emphasis on fact-based, critical thinking. And there's something deeper communicated here as well, which lies behind the Swarthmore commitment to fearless inquiry. I'm speaking here of the college's values. Quaker-inflected, humanist to the core, these values are grounded on a belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings, a belief that counsels humility and a call to action. To say that Swarthmore sought to inculcate these values is not to say that we always listened. We were, we are a hardheaded bunch. I have no reason to think that those of you celebrating your 5th reunion were any less convinced of the wisdom and righteousness of your ideas when you arrived as freshman, than those of us celebrating our 45th or 50th. So for many of us, Swarthmore values seeped in and took root almost unnoticed, sometimes unwanted. I have a very clear memory of thinking on my graduation day that Swarthmore college had changed us, the graduates, more than we had changed the college. I was foolishly rueful.

Today I stand in this beautiful place, surely older and possibly wiser and I am grateful. Swarthmore's values run long and deep. Quaker support for abolitionism in the 19th century, and for social justice and world peace in the 20th century are well-known. In the 1980s, two Quakers, Jim Corbin and Jim Dudley, appalled at the federal government's treatment of asylum seekers from Central America, joined with the Catholic and Presbyterian religious leaders to found the American Sanctuary movement. Sanctuary offered assistance to asylum seekers, and eventually helped them move across the border and offered them shelter in the United States. Their work recalled Quaker support for the Underground Railroad more than a century before. Eventually more than 500 congregations joined the movement. 

Sanctuary workers were aware that their acts were considered illegal under federal law, but they were convinced that the federal policies were immoral and unjust, that people in desperate need of rescue were being denied safety in the United States because our government supported the oppressive governments from which the asylum seekers were fleeing. Jim Corbin and 10 others were indicted on charges of conspiracy and transporting and harboring unauthorized migrants. Eight defendants were convicted of smuggling. They were given suspended sentences. Corbin was acquitted on all charges. The sanctuary movement gained significant public notice, calling attention to the injustice of US policies. Within a decade, the US asylum system had been reformed, and legislation was adopted in 1990 that regularized the status of tens of thousands of Central Americans and others in the country. The wake-up call of the Sanctuary movement contributed to these developments.

But the reforms of the 1990s have been undercut in more recent years. Under the Obama administration, the asylum system was allowed to become overburdened, resulting in a backlog of 200,000 unadjudicated cases. When the number of Central Americans seeking asylum again surged, Obama adopted policies to deter arrivals, including funding Mexican law enforcement efforts to stop the flow, and he stepped up family detention in the United States.

President Trump has continued some of the Obama policies, but he's raised them to a level that challenges the moral fiber of this nation. A movement of persons fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has been labeled an invasion that threatens the sovereignty of the United States. The military has been sent to the border. Over the opposition of both houses of Congress, Trump has declared an emergency that will permit him to divert billions of federal dollars to build an unneeded and unwanted wall. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a decision that makes it all but impossible for women fleeing domestic violence and young men fleeing gang recruitment to receive asylum in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department have issued regulations that deny asylum to persons who have entered the US between official ports of entry, despite the federal law guaranteeing the right to apply for asylum, irrespective of status and manner of entry. Until stopped by public outcry and conscientious judges, the administration separated more than 2,500 children from their parents who were being criminally prosecuted for illegal entry. Three children have died in border patrol custody in the past six months.

I've been describing policies that this administration has taken against Central American asylum seekers, but they're but of a piece of a broader attack on the US refugee system. Along with the so-called Muslim ban adopted weeks after Trump took office, the President simply suspended the US Refugee Resettlement program for six months. In the past, the US resettled more refugees than all other countries combined. But under the Trump administration, resettlement has declined by 75%. In his last year in office, President Obama announced a goal of 110,000 refugees that would be brought to the US. Trump cut that number in half and then cut it again. This year, fewer than 30,000 refugees will be resettled, and this at a time when the number of displaced persons globally is at its highest level ever recorded. The administration has claimed that it's cheaper to take care of refugees overseas in countries of first asylum, cheaper than in the United States, and that probably is true. But what the administration is ignoring is research showing that refugees in the long-run are an economic benefit to the United States.

Now to help build a better international system for refugee protection, the nations of the world adopted a global compact on refugees last year. The United States was one of two countries, the other was Hungary, that didn't sign the compact. In short, the United States has lost its leadership on refugee issues around the globe and has done great damage here at home. It's not surprising that a new sanctuary movement has risen in the United States, not only to support asylum seekers but to support other categories. Immigrants who face unconscionably harsh deportation laws, criminal prosecutions, and lengthy detention. Swarthmore, true to its values, has not been silent. In December 2016, the Board of Managers and President Smith issued a joint statement announcing their commitment, here I quote "To protect and provide sanctuary for all members of our community who may need such protection in the coming months and years, including our undocumented students. Our Quaker heritage provides us with a long tradition of non-violent action and peaceful protest against oppressive government acts and mandates." Among other actions, the Board and the President pledged that the college would not voluntarily share student information with immigration enforcement officials, that it would not voluntarily grant access to college property to immigration enforcement officials, and would not support the enforcement actions of immigration officials should they come on campus.

These issues are of dramatic importance to millions of immigrants in the United States, and tens of millions displaced people around the world. But there's an ever larger challenge that faces the world as a whole, and threatens to displace hundreds of millions of persons in the coming decades. I'm referring of course here to the effects of climate change. Just outside this amphitheater is a quotation ingrained in stone from a Wordsworth poem. The poem is Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey and it says "Nature never did betray the heart that loved her." Yes, one might ask today, but have we betrayed her? Poisoning her air, cutting her forests, insulting her seas and melting her glaciers. Unhappily here again, US efforts have gone in precisely the wrong direction. The current administration has loosened regulation in order to increase the production of fossil fuels. It has rejected measures to mitigate climate change. It has withdrawn from the Paris Accord. Science confirms the words of the ancient prophet, that those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. Violent storms, rising sea levels, desertification will in our lifetimes force more people from their homes than all the previous conflicts that have created refuges. And with cruel irony, the most devastating impacts of the climate crisis will fall on those least responsible for it and least able to respond.

To meet this existential challenge requires the kind of education that this college has for so long offered its students, one that cultivates both intellectual rigor and deep moral sensibility, that reminds us with the privileges that have been bestowed upon us here come responsibilities to our neighbors, to all those who reside with us in this country and to the global community. But let me not overly cloud the beauty of this day and its sweet memories. In another song Baez wrote about Dylan, she says to him "Now you're telling me you're not nostalgic. Then give me another word for it, you who are so good with words." Well, it took several decades for the Nobel Prize committee to recognize just how good with words Dylan was, but I'll go with Baez's words here. Nostalgic. The word nostalgia was apparently coined in the 18th century by a Swiss medical student who combined the Latin for "return home" with the Greek word for "pain." That is nostalgia was a medical condition. Over the past several hundred years, the word has taken on gentler connotations, now most often meaning a wistful longing to return to happy days.

So while Bruce Springsteen may have said "We learn more from a three-minute song, baby, than we ever learned in school," I'll end with Baez. May the winds of the old days from our time at Swarthmore continue to fill our sails, to inspire us, to lead us to think, to feel, and to act. Thank you.