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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—In the wake of President-elect Donald Trump's anti-immigrant political rhetoric, a counter-celebration of America's diversity–and sharp opposition to his policies–has blossomed in the Hub City.
Protests showing support for immigrants–including one that drew well over a thousand people on November 16–have largely prioritized immigration in the aftermath of the election.
That protest was billed as part of a national movement resisting Trump's presidency and calling for all universities to become a "sanctuary campus," described as "a place free from the fear of deportation, where US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is not welcome."
The action only continued a trend that began prior to Election Day, with an escalating series of loosely-connected political events that have activated the city's student population and deepened their connection with the New Brunswick community.
New Brunswick has seen a significant increase in its population of Mexican people, as well as South and Central Americans over the past twenty years. Many are citizens, others have some legal residency status, but many do not have either.
The message of the protesters was articulated by a simple, catchy chant used at multiple protests since the November 8 election: "No hate. No fear. Immigrants are welcome here."
But the protests also appeared to fold in other key issues where the local community disagrees with Trump, with chants taking aim at Trump's views on abortion, gay rights, and climate change, and showing suppport for refugees, women, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Native American tribe currently fighting against construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota.
The massive November 16 action was actually part of a nationwide movement that saw demonstrations at more than 100 college campuses.
This movement works to honor and bring awareness to the achievements, sacrifices and contributions immigrants have made throughout American history, as well as to protect and empower immigrants who are here today.
The protest march was also part of a re-awakening and a re-focusing of the student movement at Rutgers, as actions around immigration have ramped up around the College Avenue campus in this election year.
The most recent demonstration began with hundreds of students walking out of class and flocking to Voorhees Mall, a historic hotbed of student activism. The rally there was led by organizers affiliated with Movimiento Cosecha, and many different student groups across campus.
It also attracted support from others in the New Brunswick community outside of the Rutgers bubble, and attracted national media attention.
“No one should have to study or work with the threat of immigration raids hanging over them,” read materials promoting the event, which was billed as both "pro-immigrant" and "anti-Trump."
Carimer Andujar, the founder and president of UndocuRutgers told the assembled crowd, “We are here undocumented and unafraid. And we are here to stay.”
The nationwide campaign calls on universities to declare themselves "sanctuaries" for undocumented immigrants, which mirrors the controversial "sanctuary city" policies that have attempted to keep local police out of the business of enforcing federal immigration law.
The participants, and a handful of detractors, congregated at Voorhees Mall, with many holding signs with a variety of messages ranging from “Ban Islamophobia” to “Stop the Deportations” to “Trump Inspires Hate Crimes.”
Alex Uemastu, a Rutgers senior, spoke about a petition for Rutgers to declare itself as a Sanctuary Campus, in an effort to protect community members from deportation by federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The focus on immigration makes a lot of sense, given Trump's campaign rhetoric targeting Mexican immigrants, whom he cited in the first speech of his campaign speech as "rapists and criminals," conceeding that he assumed some were "good people."
Trump has also taken aim at Muslims, many of whom are immigrants, even suggesting that people of that faith be forced to register with the government and that their places of worship ought to be put under surveillance, and spewed false information about the behavior of New Jerseyans in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down," Trump claimed. "Thousands of people were cheering."
Even his longtime friend, New Jersey's unpopular Governor Chris Christie, could not corroborate that outlandish story.
Trump's unusual partnership with Christie is another reason the focus on immigration makes sense for protesters.
Though he has signaled it is unlikely he will leave his job as Governor, Christie's name has been in the mix as a potential candidate to lead the Department of Homeland Security, the agency that oversees ICE, in Trump's administration.
During his own failed campaign for President, Christie famously compared immigrants to FedEx packages, suggesting he would hire the company's leader to implement a tracking system for immigrants.
"We need to have a system that tracks you from the moment you come in and then when your time is up," said Christie.
Another candidate for the Homeland Security job is Kris Kobach, the Secretary of State in Kansas.
During a recent meeting with Trump at the President-Elect's golf course in Bedminster, the first page of Kobach's top-secret plans for the first 100 days of the Trump administration were photographed by journalists, because Kobach carelessly made no effort to conceal them as he left the meeting.
Among the plans on Kobach's paper were deporting a "record number of criminal aliens in the first year," bringing back a controversial tracking system shut down in 2005 known as NSEERS, and considering gang members "criminal aliens" even if they have not been charged with a crime.
New Jersey, and in particular Middlesex County, has large immigrant populations, both in its cities and well as suburban areas.
Since winning the nation's highest office in a stunning upset, Trump has re-doubled his promise to deport millions of immigrants from the country, leading many city Mayors to announce their opposition and express their desire to protect immigrants.
He's also threatened to crack down on cities that decline work with ICE, sometimes called "sanctuary cities," by withholding federal funding.
As we reported in January, ICE raided a home in New Brunswick and captured a young man who had not been charged. ICE agents busted down a door and the young man remains in federal custody nearly a year later.
New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill said he has "no intention to put an end to [the city's practice of welcoming and accepting all residents], regardless of any change in the political climate," according to an article in the Home News Tribune.
Wilda Diaz, the Mayor of Perth Amboy and President of the NJ Urban Mayors Association, expressed similar sentiments in a press conference she called to assure immigrants the city has got their back.
"It's my duty to do my best to protect our undocumented residents — those hard-working families whose children are pursing an education and seeking a better life in the United States of America," said Diaz.
Meanwhile, the protesters in New Brunswick have been calling out Rutgers University's controversial President for not taking a strong enough stand of their own.
The leaders of the November 16 protest were critical of President Robert Barchi for not declaring Rutgers University a "sanctuary campus" and for not being at the walk out.
The night before the protest, however, Barchi sent a mass email to the university community clarifying the school's policies and attempting to assuage the concerns of the protest organizers:
We will protect student confidentiality and will not share private information unless required by law or a court order. We expect all persons associated with the University to protect student privacy and confidentiality, as well.
Rutgers police do not inquire into nor record the immigration status of students or other persons unless a serious crime has been committed.
Rutgers University does not use E-verify for any purposes other than to comply with longstanding federal law regarding employment eligibility. Immigration status is not a factor in student housing decisions.
Finally, you should be aware that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy characterizes colleges and universities, like Rutgers, as “sensitive locations,” places where, in the normal course, enforcement actions should not occur unless extraordinary circumstances exist.
But that did not satisfy the nationwide movement, who are pushing for schools to stop working together with ICE entirely.
“Barchi, the president of this University, sent out a couple emails. He didn’t even say the words sanctuary campus or undocumented students,” said Uemastu.
When Uemastu spoke about the student body unifying to make Rutgers University a sanctuary campus he said, “Especially for our undocumented students who have to face the threat of deportation every single day.”
About a dozen supporters of President-Elect Donald Trump showed up to protest the walk, and some even marched along with the group as they took to the streets.
The march led by Uemastu, Andujar, and many others began down College Avenue with people chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go.”
New Brunswick and Rutgers Police ensured the safety of the protesters by having patrol cars clear the streets and redirect traffic during the duration of the march.
The march went down George Street until it reached Douglass campus and ended at Antilles Field. There the crowd came together and turned on their cell phone lights to show the news helicopters how many people there were.
The march was widely covered by many local media outlets as well as the cable news channel CNN.
“We’re gonna make sure that people here know that immigrants provide for this country, that we make America,” said Miriam Zamudio, a Rutgers junior majoring in public health.
The gathering came to an ended with an enthusiastic crowd and Uesmatu stating, “The country heard us.”
But it was far from the first protest to focus on immigration. Indeed a protest billed as the "#IAmAnImmigrant March for Justice" was held on November 1, a full week before Trump's election.
On that day, approximately 200 community members, mostly students and faculty joined in solidarity for the protest, followed by a march through downtown.
That rally and march was not an anti-Trump protest, but that didn’t stop a small group of Trump supporters heckled the much-larger group of marchers.
Instead, the event was billed as a pro-immigrant march and was organized the Center for Latino Arts and Culture also known as the CLAC, and undocuRutgers.
Signs that read "Proud to be an Immigrant," "The People United will never be defeated", "Families have no borders," expressed and voiced the sentiments of immigrants and undocumented students at Rutgers University.
The march came partly in response to an incident in October, when anti-immigrant phrases such as “Viva la deportation,” and “Deport force coming," along with Trump's signature slogan, “Make America Great Again,” were written in chalk on the streets of the College Avenue and Rutgers' Livingston campus in Piscataway.
While Rutgers University Chancellor Richard Edwards condemned the anti-immigrant displays, he noted that under freedom of speech, students have certain rights to express themselves.
In a statement, Edwards said, “On one hand, we have freedom of speech and our University promotes that… but just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean it’s right to say."
Andujar organized the November 1 march to oppose the increasingly negative sentiment towards immigrants that has been fueled by Donald Trump's political campaign.
“The reason we decided to have a march and a rally is to oppose some of that anti-immigrant sentiment that has been widespread during the election.”
The ambitious activist and Rutgers student explained that the rally energized immigrant students who were intimidated by the perceived hateful rhetoric.
“There were a lot of students who were immigrants or whose parents were immigrants and who were hurt by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and we gathered here and it was a safe place of sorts.”
Andujar believes that the speech should have approval from the Administration prior to it being written down, and that so-called non-constructive speech has no place on campus.
The #IAmAnImmigrant march ended in verbal dispute as approximately 10 Trump supporters followed the peaceful marchers with American flags and Trump/Pence signs.
The student director said there was some miscommunication. Trump supporters were under the impression that this was an Anti-Trump rally and began to shout at the marchers.
A Rutgers student and pro-Trump protester explained that he was there to protest against Clinton and what he believes are failed policies that she represents, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
"As an organizer, I was very worried that an altercation would ensue, but it was nothing. Afterwards there was some discussions, but there was no physical contact so it all carried out very well," said the student director of CLAC.
Then, on November 8, the same day that Donald Trump won the election, a group of Rutgers students gathered to rally in support of the fight against the oil pipeline in North Dakota.
Trump's upset victory sparked another protest, and a smaller counter-protest, on Friday, November 11 at Brower Commons.
Over the ensuing weekend, two community organizations also got together for a planning and strategy meeting inside a church on College Avenue to discuss how best for the immigrant community to move forward.
Though it may seem like a brave new world to some, especially the young students at Rutgers, to immigrants and their advocates, the fight dates back much further.
Advocates for the cause have not considered outgoing President Barack Obama an ally, frequently criticizing him for the tactics of ICE, the use of private prison companies to detain undocumented immigrants, and the more than two million deportations they have executed during his time in office.