Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final story in a series on the Rutgers Conservative Union. Through that lens, TAPinto New Brunswick intends to provide a comprehensive look at an energetic year of on-campus activism at New Jersey’s flagship university. The fourth part is available here.
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — By the end of the spring semester, Rutgers University’s anti-Trump movement found a figurehead.
Her name was Carimer Andujar. She was a 21-year-old Rutgers junior studying chemical engineering. Her mother brought her to the country when she was 4 years old to escape domestic abuse in the Dominican Republic. As an undocumented immigrant and the founding president of a campus advocacy group called UndocuRutgers, Andujar had become a significant and persistent voice against President Donald Trump and his policies.
But this year, federal immigration agents declined, for a time, to renew her status to legally stay and study here. The life she built was in jeopardy. And activists from Rutgers and beyond swiftly stepped up and organized a planning meeting, a rally outside Scott Hall in New Brunswick and a protest outside the federal building in Newark.
Young and promising, Andujar and her struggle embodied the potential of people who came here illegally and the uncertainty they faced under Trump, at least as far as the left was concerned.
“Being American is not just having a piece of paper,” she told supporters on May 1 in New Brunswick. “It means a lot more.”
But for the Rutgers Conservative Union, Andujar and her story symbolized something else. Rather than aspiration and persecution, the right-wing club members saw in Andujar’s story signs of a broken system.
Her spotlight also afforded them an opportunity. So, when she and her supporters gathered near College Avenue in early May, a handful of Rutgers Conservative Union affiliates assembled on the crowd’s edge. They carried flags—the American, the Gadsden (DON’T TREAD ON ME) and the pro-police thin blue line—and stood quietly, occasionally opening up to passing news cameras and political foes hungry for debate.
Dylan Marek, weeks away from completing his freshman year, wore a Pantera shirt and held a sign that read, “My Homeland ≠ Your Safe Space.” He and his colleagues said they mobilized to stand up for strong borders. Yet, while they were protesting a rally for a fellow student, Marek declined to discuss Andujar by name.
“We’re not making this about her, but the laws do need to be enforced,” he said. “We came out here today to basically show support for our law enforcement and to send a pro-American and this kind of message: That our homeland, the federal government, has the obligation in the constitution to protect our borders. And they have failed at that, and we hope to see them start enforcing those laws and protecting us and protecting our communities from illegal immigration, the poisonous drugs that pour in from south of the border and basically start defending the country.”
Brandon Chesner, a Rutgers Conservative Union member, speaks with a reporter in May.
That idea was one from Trump’s playbook. But an underdog candidate for governor in New Jersey had adopted a similar stance. Months earlier, the Rutgers Conservative Union endorsed Joseph Rullo, a right-wing businessman from Ocean County, in the Republican primary race. In interviews with members, his name popped up often. He was the closest thing they had to a homegrown Trump.
In the spring, Rullo sat down for a video town hall with the Conservative Union. For him, the backing of the campus group unearthed memories of his time at The College of New Jersey.
In 1992, he later recalled, anti-war protesters marched through the campus, demanding that the U.S. not shed blood for oil. “I got up and said, ‘No, we need to support our troops. We’re already in the Middle East.’” It was, he said, an unpopular opinion.
Now decades out of school, he considered his young conservative advocates to be in an even more difficult situation. “They try to say that you’re this or you’re that because you feel a certain way,” Rullo said of the left. “College can be a lot more vicious.”
He ultimately lost his primary bid. But Rullo’s run for governor was the sort of campaign that Rutgers professors and administrators likely hoped the Conservative Union would latch onto. It was based in relatively mainstream politics and ushering in change through the polls.
The Conservative Union staged a counter-protest at a rally for Carimer Andujar, an undocumented immigrant and Rutgers student who faced deportation.
University higher-ups, meanwhile, worried that the group and other likeminded students could become seduced by another type of icon: the white supremacist.
Fliers promoting one such group had appeared at Rutgers earlier this year. That fit a pattern emerging on many campuses, according to Felicia McGinty, vice chancellor for student affairs. “They’re coming here for two reasons: to instill fear and to recruit,” she said. “And I get concerned that—are these people people targeting our students and coming with views or opinions that might endanger them?”
To combat any threat, real or imagined, McGinty and her office tried to accommodate all student requests for assistance in planning demonstrations. Sometimes, they contacted political factions that might want to counter-protest a particular event. They sent staff members to these gatherings, to ensure safety and order. In fact, over the past year, her team began to undergo formal training for this type of work, she said.
You need only to view the Rutgers Conservative Union’s Facebook page to understand McGinty’s urgency.
A white-supremacist leader appears to have tried to sow goodwill with the group. In the comment section of a pinned post from March, a person using the name Mike Enoch seems to reference Adolph Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. If genuine, the account belongs to Mike Peinovich, a well known white-nationalist who has founded blogs and a podcast and typically publishes under the pen name “Mike Enoch.” After his marriage to a Jewish woman was revealed, Peinovich’s stature in the alt-right community took a hit, but he has continued to push his cause.
“Why should I give a f— about your struggle? Seriously,” the Enoch account replied to a Rutgers student named Evelyn Da Costa, who commented on the Conservative Union’s post. “I think you should read more of my struggle. If you know what I mean.”
The Rutgers Conservative Union has repeatedly denied any connection to white supremacy. Indeed, several of its members are people of color. But the presence of someone like Peinovich, even in cyberspace—and the chance that he could come to influence Rutgers students—is what fuels McGinty’s efforts.
The federal government eventually renewed Andujar’s status to live and study in the country. As her story wound down, so did two years of white-hot activism on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus.
Activists have remained steadfast at the city and county levels, but the school itself has been mostly quiet this summer. What September will bring is unclear. But the left will likely continue to have an antagonist in Trump. And the Rutgers Conservative Union might still summon energy from the president, his agenda and classmates who oppose his policies.
Marek, the club’s vice president, and Nick Knight, its president, are betting on another busy year for their group and campus politics in general. In fact, Knight recently said via text, the Conservative Union is already plotting its next move.
Read the rest of this series here.