More than 100 law school classmates of embattled Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen from the University of Virginia School of Law have signed a letter condemning the separation of migrant children from their parents and the indefinite detention of those families.
“The punishment you are imposing on families—on young children—is grossly disproportionate to the nature of the charge, and well beyond what is reasonable in a civil society,” reads the letter, signed by 110 UVA law alumni. “It is a cruel practice, one that may cause the children irreparable harm with lifelong consequences.”
Organizers sent the letter on Wednesday, the same day President Trump signed an executive order halting the controversial policy that has separated more than 2,000 migrant children from their families in the past five weeks. But in an email accompanying the letter sent to Nielsen, organizers explained that the executive order does not fully address their concerns.
“We do not believe that indefinite family detention effectively responds to our desire to see you mitigate the harm that an already vulnerable population will sustain,” it reads. “Similarly, we are concerned about the asylum seekers who are still being prosecuted when they fail to meet the formal requirement of presenting at a port of entry.”
The alumni also wrote that they are concerned by reports that currently separated families will not be reunited.
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Nielsen graduated from the Charlottesville law school in 1999, and each of the letter’s signatories are from the class of 1998, 1999 or 2000, meaning they all overlapped with her time on campus. Virginia Law trained them to embody justice and integrity, the alumni wrote.
“We were drilled, from the first day, in the expectation that we would hold ourselves to the highest standards, and the attached letter hopes to remind you that those ideals still matter,” reads the accompanying email.
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to request for comment on the letter.
Alix Rosenthal and Riley Ross, both 1999 Virginia Law graduates, began discussing what they could do to address the migrant separations earlier this week, Rosenthal said Thursday. Not only did they find the separation policy heart breaking, she said, but Nielsen’s public comments saying that they were required by law was galling coming from a lawyer who should know better. Meanwhile, two alumni who graduated in 2000, Tiffany Graham and Joel Brown, were also contemplating their own alumni letter. They joined forces and had secured 110 signatures within hours on Wednesday.
“We haven’t stayed in touch since law school, so I only have he memory of who she was,” said Rosenthal, who said she was friends with Nielsen on campus. “She was a very nice, hardworking person who was not very political. That’s why it’s hard for all of us to reconcile who she has become. The letter was specifically written to appeal to her conscious, and have it come from people she knows personally.”
It’s not the first time that law school alumni have banded together to take on a Trump administration official. In August, a group of 47 graduates of Florida International University College of Law signed a letter calling on their former dean, Alex Acosta, to step down as the Labor Secretary. They argued that Acosta’s legacy of good work at the Miami law school and as U.S. attorney in South Florida will be tarnished by his continued association with Trump. The letter did not have the desired effect. Acosta remains at the helm of the U.S. Department of Labor.
After graduating from Virginia with her Juris Doctor, Nielsen served in the administration of President George W. Bush within the White House Homeland Security Council. She served as chief of staff to former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, and assumed that post in December after Kelly became Trump’s chief of staff.
Rosenthal said she thought the letter could make a difference in Nielsen’s policies toward migrant families.
“I would hope so,” she said. “The person I knew had a conscience.”