By Michelle DePinho & Daniel Molina, Senior Writer & Editor
Manhattan College students in conjunction with the Office of Campus Ministry and Social Action built a mock border on the campus quadrangle last week in hopes of humanizing the issue of immigration reform at the U.S.-Mexican border. The demonstration drew both praise and controversy for its political nature, especially during an election year.
The demonstration comes at the same time that Pope Francis visited Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican border city struggling with high crime and social problems. His visit added gravity to the current national discussion on illegal immigration and border control, which has an even more elevated profile thanks to presidential debates.
“I think it’s a good show of solidarity,” a student involved with the mock border, Mahamoud Diop, said. “Humanity has no border.”
The metal-grate border was dotted with colorful paintings and posters with messages like “No human being is illegal,” and “We are all human.” Student activists also collected signatures to send to local congressmen on immigration reform and answered questions about migration throughout the week. .
Students and administrators say they put up the mock border to tie Catholic social teaching to the struggles of migrants from Mexico. They also emphasized that this demonstration ties into the college’s mission for an inclusive community.
Campus minister Conor Reidy has been on the forefront of this movement, assisting student activists with making the mock border a reality.
“…If we can try to combat very negative rhetoric and instead replace it with person-centric rhetoric and person-centric conversations, I think that would be something that would be great to come out of this,” Reidy said. “Focus more on stories than on the rhetoric.”
But the inherent politics of a mock border have incurred responses from both students in strong support of the message and others who don’t agree with the college’s stance on the hotly-contested issue of illegal immigration.
“I think the administration has to be really careful when they do these kinds of things. Not just our campus community is going to see it, but families visiting [also],” senior Vincent Terrone said.
“Not all of the campus shares the same views. [They are] constructing that wall in the midst of an election going on. There’s a pretty big divide on campus as to where people’s political views align.”
A Nov. 3 poll administered by the college’s Government and Politics Club alludes to that ideological division. The most popular Democratic candidate was Bernie Sanders, while the most popular Republican candidate was Donald Trump. While the polling lines between parties were not an even split, with students slightly favoring Democratic candidates over their Republican counterparts, the stark contrast between Sanders and Trump’s views speak to some polarity on this campus.
On the flip side, other students expressed support in the form of signing the petitions CMSA provided and using the college’s social media platforms to respond to negative comments from community members. They have emphasized social justice over politics.
Reidy has also stressed that the border matches up with the Catholic mission.
“Everything that’s being supported by Campus Ministry and Social Action is completely in line with the Church’s teachings and Catholic social teaching on this subject,” Reidy said. “So I think that’s the significance of having the border up and being sponsored by CMSA, it’s not only to remind everyone what the Church’s position is, it’s very clear position on these questions, but also to realize that in college it is a very good time for kind of having these conversations….especially in an election year.”
Catholic social teaching has a long and storied history of going against the grain on a variety of political issues. Kevin Ahearn, Ph.D. and assistant professor of religious studies, focuses his research on the intersection of Catholicism and politics.
“The Catholic Church has long been engaged in political questions,” Ahern said. “I think it’s helpful to distinguish between politics and partisan politics. Everything is a political question. Jesus was a political person…. Christianity, by its very nature, and I would argue all religions, are very political.”
But Ahern pointed out that the Church’s stance on migration and the Pope’s visit to Ciudad Juarez come from a place of concern for the needy.
“Christianity has long held, coming out of the Jewish tradition, a deep concern for migrants, for refugees, and for the poor. So he’s not doing anything new in this regard in showing that,” Ahern said.
“We have millions of people in this country who are working, who are contributing to the society. Our economy depends upon them, but they live in the shadows, they live in fear, they live in terrible living working conditions. So there’s a lot of suffering happening around this. So the Catholic tradition is very concerned about human beings.”
Amidst these various, dynamic layers of religion and politics that have built a debate around American immigration policy, students working on the mock border project have stressed that starting this campus dialogue is important.
“Even if there are people that do not agree with it, I think that it encourages a conversation among students, faculty, alumni and the general community,” Just Peace president Katelyn-Rose Conroy said. “Communication is the best way to change something.”