Over the past few years, as the nation has confronted a cruel and irrational president, I have been most dismayed not by the president himself, but by the public servants who have willfully taken active roles in supporting his agenda. I have asked why officials with top educations would lend their hand to — and often provide the legal or intellectual chops to buttress — an administration that blithely harms human life.
Finding no good answers, I focus instead on the leaders who offer hope for a more just future.
But throughout the summer, this approach felt untenable as the consequences of the president’s anti-immigration policies and rhetoric became irreparably destructive. This was particularly true when I learned that two Amherst alumni held key roles in the Executive branch as the acting secretary of homeland security and as an attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation. While both were first appointed in a very different political climate under the Obama administration, today they are tasked with serving agencies and departments that directly facilitate and perpetuate President Donald Trump’s immigration policies — policies better described as anti-immigration and antithetical to the values of diversity and community for which Amherst stands.
While naming these officials seems unnecessary, it’s imperative that we consider the ethical implications of their roles and the responsibilities of our community when alumni enforce or defend such policies. Similarly, speculating as to whether said officials condone the president’s immigration policy seems counterproductive. That being said, we must think critically about what it means for alumni to act under a presidency defined by an ethos of anti-immigration, especially if Amherst is to embody what it strives to: a community capable of giving light to the world.
So here’s a very brief overview of the roles of the two alumni — Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan ’94 and Justice Department attorney Sarah Fabian ’98 — at the nexus of U.S. immigration policy.
Fabian, who works at the Justice Department, has defended the government in several high-profile immigration cases, including a 2016 lawsuit challenging inhumane conditions in migrant detention facilities, and in a recent case, Flores v. Barr, which concerned the government’s obligations to the treatment of migrant children in custody. The government lost; the courts ordered that all children must receive “safe and sanitary conditions.”
Meanwhile at DHS, McAleenan has become the most recent leader in the enforcement of immigration policy. To his credit, he has advocated for and taken specific actions to improve the conditions in which immigrating families are held. But he has also defended Trump’s approach to the issue of immigration, including the zero-tolerance child separation policy widely condemned as inhumane and in violation of humanitarian law, before Congress. Most recently, the agency he oversees changed regulations governing a little-known rule: Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds, which favors wealthy applicants in the immigration application process.
Even now, as I write this piece, he is defending a new policy to end the Flores Agreement — a two-decade standing decree intended to prevent the unnecessary detention of children. Peter Shey, president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, called the new policy a “flagrant disregard on the part of … [the] administration for the safety and the well-being of children in the care of the federal government,” in an interview with Vanity Fair. As of Aug. 26, 20 states have sued the administration over the new rule.
As global citizens and Amherst alumni alike, what is our responsibility when an administration utilizes the talent of an elite college to work on its behalf and support policies antithetical to the liberal arts ideal of using knowledge for humanity? Is it a letter — like the one Duke alumni penned scrutinizing Stephen Miller, who, unlike the aforementioned officials, has been a dogmatic creator of the administration’s policies? Or is it a question of confronting and defining fidelities — a question of whom we support, how we embody our alliances and how we forge communities with hope and strength?
Several months ago, I attended Commencement and proudly watched as President Biddy Martin took a tactful yet committed stance on the seriousness of these fidelities and the college’s obligations to its students in such political times. In her address, she discussed a sense of interconnectivity — the idea that we live not alone but in “embodied networks,” of which our community is only one part. She also discussed the President’s Letters — a series of responses to changes in political policy that may affect the lives of the Amherst student body. She said, “I wrote the [statements] because of these changes’ impact on you,” referring to the Amherst community. As I listened, I felt a true sense of community; that is, I felt the existence of a “we” who can and do embody the ethos of our highest ideals.
That sense of community, the conviction in Martin’s statements and the implicit connection — even accountability — that one feels within an alumni network like ours made me and many of my fellow ’18 classmates experience something more bitter than irony when we learned that certain alumni were serving in principal positions in the Executive branch. To study at Amherst is to have a set of shared liberal arts experiences with diverse and driven people. That connective tissue is a primary reason that, when we hear about alumni doing good work, we experience a justifiable sense of closeness, even pride.
But the inverse is true. When we hear alumni are serving an administration that has gone so far as to enact policies that literally threaten the well-being of future students and families at Amherst because of their identity, we try to discern ways in which we can motivate the community to create a higher standard. And we must try to use the community’s network to open a dialogue that can effect meaningful change.
Doing so is not only a moral imperative — it is a question, literally, of access.
Amherst seeks to welcome all students who can contribute to the community, regardless of their identity, income or background. But to attend the college, you need more than an acceptance letter; you need to be offered a space that is safe within the U.S. Today, the offices that Amherst alumni occupy are jeopardizing the ability of thousands to come to America, pursue their dreams and potentially attend our college.
One might argue that there are justifications for working for today’s Executive branch, from career considerations to the idea that it’s best to be a balancing force or to effect change from the inside. One might also argue that working for the Executive branch means working for an office — not a leader — and point out that, in the case of the Justice Department, lawyers do not choose their cases.
There’s another complication: it’s difficult to discern a universal moral framework that students, faculty and alumni can apply in their assessments of one another. In any community, there will be disagreement about what constitutes a just career pursuit. Trying to define those parameters takes the thought of the whole community and the resolve to stand up for them.
But I have two points that I hope can further a conversation about the complex role and urgent obligations of alumni communities like Amherst’s and the liberal arts in general.
First, that Amherst alumni are serving in an administration routinely acting in ways few of us would defend testifies to the immediacy of our political calamity. What started as a presidential run widely scrutinized by the clear-headed has begot an administration successful in enlisting some of those very minds to defend it. Another more subtle result is a disruption of a central tenet in the liberal arts: the ability to, according to Amherst’s report to the NEASC, “lead principled lives of consequence” in all positions, including those in the civil state and those with immense responsibility. Perhaps it is true that you can enforce the current president’s immigration policy by day and live a moral life by night.
But the fact is that doing so requires working under a series of leaders who have no regard for that principle. Indeed, doing so means that, in the past or future, you are and will be asked to defend or carry out something blatantly wrong.
Second, the current situation creates renewed urgency to articulate the kind of role Amherst wants to play in American democracy today and in years to come, especially in the wake of an administration that will leave behind a fractured system in need of repair. Amherst alumni should strive to become, as many have, the kind of state leaders who can come back to campus, speak to students and, in front of the many flags of the nations the students represent, defend their work in the name of justice and the spirit of liberal arts.
We owe it to Amherst — to the students, the faculty who taught us and the college’s mark on history.