What I Learned From Trying To Make My Campus a Sanctuary

Marcia speaks in favor of CUNY becoming a ‘Sanctuary Campus’. Photo: Jonathan Baron

On a warm, sunny day in late March dozens of college students gather for a rally on the northern end of the Queens College campus. Many of them carry small signs with messages of tolerance and inclusion. Solidarity is the overall theme of the event, although there is a particular emphasis on the struggles of the immigrant community.

Marcia S. is among them, loudspeaker in tow, dressed in all black. She is leading the rally, addressing her peers in the confident, impassioned tone of a seasoned grassroots activist.

As one of the more than 750,000 D.A.C.A. recipients in the U.S., much of Marcia’s  activism is informed by her personal story. Her work as an interpreter, for example, utilizes her knowledge of Spanish to help asylum seekers during interviews with officers of the Department of Homeland Security.

The political, in her mind, was more of a byproduct of her background, which includes, among other things, her immigration status. It did not, however, lead her to adopt a specific political ideology or identify with a broader political movement. “It was just personal. I didn’t see politics as community,” she says.

That would change over the course of the semester as the personal and the political became more entwined in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. “I think this election cost a lot of people different parts of their identity,” she says. Marcia, for example, identifies as queer and is an undocumented woman of color, to which she adds, “all these things I am are constantly at risk.”

“I wasn’t going to start any new projects,” Marcia tells me, weeks after the rally. Her intention before the start of the spring semester had been to focus more on her studies. By January, however, it was apparent that it would be difficult to ignore the changing political landscape.

It all began with the November elections. Marcia recalls the initial reaction to Donald Trump’s election among many of her close friends, “A lot of us cried, we felt powerless.” Yet after a brief period of mourning, grassroots resistance movements would begin to emerge around the country.

“Organize and mobilize” are the words that Marcia remembers being told by a close mentor within the immigrant activist community. It was a familiar mantra for the 23-year-old comparative literature student, whose past experiences included volunteer work with organizations including the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) and Mixteca, a community-based group located in Sunset Park. “It made me feel good to help my community,” she says.

Nevertheless, she remained apolitical – her focus remained on building community. During the fall semester, for example, she helped to organize bi-weekly meetings where women-identifying students could meet, have a cup of coffee, and share conversation within the context of a safe space.

To an extent, Marcia’s approach to civic engagement is linked to the circumstances that brought her family to New York City from Argentina in 2001. The country was in the midst of a debt crisis that, in December of that same year, would escalate into several days of violent rioting and protests. The economic and political instability resulted in a succession of five presidents in the span of two weeks, as well as an infamous and protracted legal battle between Argentina and its creditors that was only resolved last year.

As a result, Marcia inherited a general sense of disillusionment with electoral politics, having experienced firsthand the consequences of a political establishment that was perceived as both corrupt and ineffective.

Although scheduled to take place early in the semester—so as not to interfere with her classes—the rally would be delayed until just before spring recess. In that time, the president signed Executive Order 13769, more commonly known as the “Muslim Ban,” which suspended the entry of residents from a list of seven Muslim-majority countries—in addition to lowering the number of refugees allowed into the country.

The news of lawyers arriving at airports in late January and early February to contest the ban and represent immigrant clients solidified Marcia’s desire to become a lawyer. “Those people who showed up to JFK and LGA are my heroes,” she says, “[because] they got to make a direct impact.” In the weeks that followed, Marcia would have a similar opportunity to make a direct impact as the semester took yet another unexpected turn.

Marcia on campus at CUNY; photo: Jonathan Baron

It was during a general interest meeting for a new student political party that Marcia emerged as their candidate for Student Association (SA) president. Deciding that she could no longer ignore or remain uninformed about politics, the experience soon turned into a sort of political boot camp.

Fellow students schooled Marcia on whatever she wanted to know, whether it was the history of a radical leftist movement or a fundamental political ideology. Over time, she gained a greater appreciation for the relationship between large-scale political movements and grassroots organizing—an important lesson as she contemplated her place in the burgeoning resistance movement against the Trump administration. “I learned a lot about myself politically,” she says.

At the same time, Marcia was becoming involved in the campus sanctuary movement, which mirrors the broader, faith-based sanctuary movement of the 1980s that has since reemerged. Hundreds of  cities, counties, and states in the U.S. have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. “I think it is crucial to establish a safe space for the undocumented community, especially in the schools,” Marcia asserts.

Yet having a safe space for undocumented students is just one of several interpretations of the term, which vary from symbolic resolutions to the adoption of an official policy, i.e. school officials agreeing to not cooperate with federal immigration officials.

While dozens of colleges have in fact become sanctuaries as a matter of policy, there has been hesitation on the part of public institutions which receive funding at the city, state, and federal level. President Trump had already threatened to cut funding to sanctuary cities in the early days of his administration.

Chancellor James B. Milliken affirmed that CUNY, the largest urban university in the United States, “will take any steps available under the law to protect and support its undocumented students.” But he stopped short of declaring the CUNY system a sanctuary.

His statement came after students and faculty drafted a resolution, circulated a petition, and organized several demonstrations. Many, however, had hoped for more dialogue and additional resources. To Marcia, the chancellor’s statement lacked substance. “Just by talking, we will keep people safe? I think safety is something that has to be active,” she said.

When subsequent efforts to have CUNY campuses declared sanctuaries were unsuccessful, tactics shifted toward establishing “hate-free zones,” which were already set up in different parts of the city. Residents of Jackson Heights in Queens and Kensington in Brooklyn, for example, held rallies in support of what amounts to a community-based effort to protect and show solidarity with those who feel threatened by the current presidential administration.

As a more inclusive, less politically charged term, it was hoped that hate-free zones would have a broader appeal to the student body and college administrators. Things, unfortunately, did not progress at Marcia’s campus. The administration, while responsive in certain respects, did not declare hate-free zones.

Her bid for SA president was also unsuccessful. Nonetheless, the semester had been a transformative experience for Marcia. The anti-immigrant rhetoric and threat of mass deportations by the Trump administration had inspired her to lean into a sense of purpose. Yet there’s still a ways to go. “I don’t know where I fit into a lot of spaces, even though I believe in them,” she says.

Now that she understands, more acutely, the value of grassroots organizing, Marcia’s approach to her activism is simple: “Plant first, let the soil get hot. Plant another thing.” In other words, stay involved, do the work, and eventually, as the metaphor implies, you’ll reap what you sow.

Read More stories from our magazine, Is It Safe Here? Redefining Sanctuary In The Trump Era.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, The J.M. Kaplan Fund, an anonymous donor and readers like you.

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AboutDavid Pastor
Néstor David Pastor is a writer, musician, journalist, and translator born and raised in Queens, NY. He currently works with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies and was Managing Editor of the Unidos App. He attended Binghamton University.