NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — As the cold night began to take hold outside City Hall, one of the protest’s organizers floated an idea: the dozens of demonstrators should sing “We Shall Overcome.”
The gospel song was an anthem of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s. The crowd, believing it applied as much today as it did then, erupted with applause and then broke into a chorus of dissent.
“I do believe we shall overcome someday,” they sang. “We are not afraid.”
This was but a fraction of the scene outside New Brunswick City Hall this evening, after protesters presented the clerk’s office with a list of demands regarding how the city should treat its undocumented immigrants. Demonstrators then gathered on the steps of the building, calling upon Mayor Jim Cahill to enact concrete policies to protect the population in the era of President Donald Trump.
Activists from a smorgasbord of groups attended the event. Their motivation, they said, stemmed from what they considered to be Cahill’s kind words but ultimate inaction toward New Brunswick’s undocumented immigrants.
The mayor and his administration, meanwhile, have pledged their support to immigrants, who comprise roughly 40 percent of the city’s population, according to U.S. Census figures.
“We are here to demand dignity, respect and protection for immigrants,” Alejandro Jaramillo said into a megaphone before the growing crowd outside. “The only thing that they are doing is working hard to bring food to their families. They pay taxes and obey the laws.”
The protesters urged Cahill to issue orders that would bar municipal funds from being used to aid in deportations, a policy that the mayor has said is in place. The activists also requested the city keep track of the requests for assistance that it receives from federal Immigration and Customers Enforcement officials.
Seth Kaper-Dale, an aspiring lawmaker and pastor at the progressive Highland Park Reformed Church, said the mayor ought to form a “neighborhood watch” that ensures parents do not get picked up by ICE agents after dropping their kids off at school.
Local activists have claimed that some undocumented immigrants now fear sending their kids to school or leaving the house.
What’s more, Kaper-Dale said, is that Cahill should lobby state officials in Trenton to safeguard undocumented immigrants.
“When we do not stand up and say this is a sanctuary city, we are siding with an oppressive regime that’s run by Donald Trump,” Kaper-Dale said. “There’s no space for compromise on this.”
The term “sanctuary city” has cropped up often in recent months. The label refers to communities whose policies and general attitudes support and protect undocumented immigrants, but the phrase has no legal definition.
One of Cahill’s staffers recently said New Brunswick is not a sanctuary city. The mayor, however, later added that the city’s actions represent the spirit of the term.
Rain sporadically pounded New Brunswick throughout much of the day. Clouds remained by the 4 p.m. start of the protest, but the rain had mostly ceased, bringing out dozens of pro-immigrant voices.
One by one, speakers took to the megaphone. They condemned Trump’s controversial executive order that banned refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, a talking point that echoed concerns from a Rutgers-driven protest march last week.
Demonstrators chanted phrases such as “No one is illegal” and “When immigrants are under attack, what do we do? Stand up and fight back.”
People from groups like New Labor, the International Migrants Alliance and various local mosques spoke out in favor of undocumented immigrants. They urged Cahill to take a stand for them, despite the possible loss of federal funding.
“We call upon those in places of power to not play a temporary political game,” said Sam Catovic, executive director of the New Brunswick Islamic Center. “Be on the side of what is right. Be on the side of being a great person in history in your locale or your state.”
Some spoke in Spanish. They captured the enthusiasm of English speakers in attendance.
“We are here and we’re not leaving,” said one Spanish-speaking woman.
“I’m scared of nothing,” a man said.