By David Brand
Hours before officials from ICE were scheduled to appear at a St. John’s University career fair amid student opposition, the agency gave the school the cold shoulder.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was invited to the Fall Career and Internship Fair but did not ultimately attend the event, which lasted from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday.
St. John’s Career Services Executive Director Paulette Gonzalez did not respond to request for comment, but St. John’s spokesperson Brian Browne said ICE cancelled the appearance on their own due to “unforeseen circumstances.”
In the days leading up to the event, students and other on-campus advocates protested ICE and CBP’s invitation amid a large-scale immigration crackdown.
Early Thursday morning, the student organization Students of Consciousness circulated an email asking opponents of ICE’s visit to contact administrators in the career services department.
SOC also said it met with Gonzalez to share their concerns.
“At this meeting, students explained why having this law enforcement on the St. John’s campus is hypocritical to the university’s foundational values, and their stance on DACA in previous years,” the SOC said. “Many expressed discomfort and a sense of danger.”
In their email, the students in SOC said that Gonzalez told them that St. John’s “decided not to be political in the decision making of inviting ICE,” and that “ICE at the career fair has not been a problem before.”
Some immigrants’ rights advocates say the decision to invite ICE and CBP amid large-scale protests across Queens and the United States is inherently political, however.
“ICE should not be invited onto St. John's or any Catholic college campus as part of a career fair or any recruiting operation,” Dr. Meghan Clark, an adjunct professor of moral theology, wrote on Twitter. “This is a time [for] moral clarity. We are called to stand up [for] the human dignity of our immigrant and undocumented brothers & sisters.”
The presence of ICE in Queens has also activated many local politicians.
On Friday, Assembly Member David Weprin, who represents Fresh Meadows and Richmond Hill, will join immigrants’ rights advocates, affected family members and community organizations at the Varick Street Detention Facility to call on ICE to end the indefinite detention of asylum-seekers and other immigrants held on administrative violations. Council Member Francisco Moya, Assembly Member Ari Espinal and other local lawmakers have also led protests against ICE.
Since 2017, Queens has seen an increase in the number of ICE raids and arrests of undocumented immigrants without criminal records.
An interactive map created by the Immigrant Defense Project and the Center for Constitutional Rights details at least 133 ICE raids that have occurred in Queens since 2013, including dozens in the Queens Criminal Courthouse in Kew Gardens. Of those, 94 have taken place since Donald Trump took office and expanded immigration enforcement efforts in Jan. 2017.
In a statement to the Eagle, Browne, the St. John’s spokesperson, said the university “understands the seriousness of the political rhetoric around the issue of immigration reform and how that rhetoric impacts government policy and attitudes toward immigrants.”
“As we have for 148 years, St. John's continues to embrace our founding mission to be a place for immigrants and their children to attain a quality education,” Browne said. “This mission helps to shape our values and strategic priorities. St. John's has several majors, including Homeland Security and Criminal Justice that present students with career opportunities in the area of immigration. For students in these majors, this may involve employment by several federal agencies including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
Brown said the school invited ICE to engage students enrolled in criminal justice and homeland security-related programs.
“Students studying at St. John’s today may someday become a force for meaningful and comprehensive immigration reform within ICE,” he said. “We understand the concerns expressed by some students with regard to ICE, and the request by some students not to allow their participation in the University's career fair.”
The same evening as the career fair, the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights hosted a forum on immigration policy and family separation.
“The Trump administration's policy of separating families who crossed our southern border has sparked public dialogue and debate about immigration and national interests,” the event description said. “At this watershed moment, we invite you to join us as the Law School community comes together to welcome, share, and consider diverse perspectives on family separation and related government and citizen action.
But the scheduling of the event was a “total coincidence,” said Jennifer Baum, associate professor of Clinical Legal Education and director of the Child Advocacy Clinic at St. John’s Law.
Baum, who was scheduled to speak at the forum, said the ICE invitation “created a lot of controversy and there are very legitimate concerns on both sides.”
“Some students are deterred from pursuing career options because they don’t want to cross paths with ICE,” she said. “Other students are deterred from pursuing a career with ICE if ICE is prevented from coming to campus.”
She said the Ron Brown Center dialogue is designed to give law school students legal background and information about family separation policies as part of a “healthy, fact-based” conversation.
“The bottom line is that students are really hungry for information. They’re craving it,” Baum said. “They want to know the facts behind the policies. They want to understand the legal rulings. They want to understand their rights as students. There are some who are afraid and others who are not afraid and may want to pursue career in [immigration enforcement].”
A young woman holds a sign at a June demonstration in support of immigrants in Sunnyside. // Eagle file photo by Andy Katz