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Michael O’BrienSeptember 21, 2023
Protest signs are posted outside the former Saint John Villa Academy being repurposed as a shelter for homeless migrants, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in the Staten Island borough of New York. Scott Herkert, a New Yorker upset that the city has been housing homeless migrants on his suburban block, has set up a loudspeaker to deliver an unwelcoming message in six languages to his new neighbors: "The community wants you to go back to New York City. Immigrants are not safe here." (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Staten Island, often called the “forgotten borough,” has been making headlines recently. In response to a new migrant shelter at the site of the former St. John Villa Academy—a Catholic school that closed in 2018 and became the property of the city—Staten Islanders have taken to the streets since late August to express their displeasure.

Last week, a resident living near the center began blaring the following message over a loudspeaker on his front lawn: “The community wants you to go back to New York City. Immigrants are not safe here.” The same home displays a massive sign on the lawn reading “No [expletive] Way.”

I grew up on Staten Island. Whenever someone asks me where I’m from, I don’t say New York City—I tell them I’m from Staten Island. Although we count just as much as any of the other four boroughs, we Staten Islanders always seem to have a chip on our shoulders, certain that we are looked down upon by Manhattanites and Brooklynites. Chances are, if you meet someone else from Staten Island, they won’t let you forget about the “forgotten borough” either.

Despite having a population of nearly 500,000 (more than the cities of Miami, Raleigh and Minneapolis), Staten Island feels more like a small town. It is common to run into an old school teacher in the grocery store or see a cousin while walking in one of the Island's many (over 170) parks. To this day, my best friends are people I grew up with on Staten Island, and I am immensely grateful for that.

To this day, my best friends are people I grew up with on Staten Island. But I am ashamed of how some members of my community have reacted to the arrival of migrants.

But I am ashamed of how some members of my community have reacted to the arrival of migrants. While they are within their First Amendment right to protest, as hundreds of Staten Islanders did in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, their recent actions toward these newcomers have been threatening and downright hostile.

For a borough that has long complained of being forgotten, it is ironic that Staten Island now acts as if it doesn’t want to be a part of New York City. U.S. Representative Nicole Malliotakis has called for Staten Island to secede in response to the influx of migrants.

Some of the Islanders’ outcries relating to the migrant center include the fear that illegal immigrants are a danger to children. According to a U.S. Department of Justice study, U.S.-born citizens in Texas are over two times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes in that state than are undocumented immigrants. This fear of migrants is hypocritical when the protesters seem to be the ones threatening people’s safety.

It is also ironic to find such outrage in a borough that, like most of North America, was originally inhabited by Native Americans—in this case the Lenapes, who were here long before the Dutch settled on the island. Staten Islanders should remember this when they decide who gets to call the borough home.

The legal debate over immigrants taking refuge in New York City is a complex topic in itself. But on a personal level, I struggle to engage with anti-immigration advocates demonstrating in such an inflammatory way. I argue these protests are inherently anti-Catholic.

In the most Catholic borough in New York City (Staten Island identifies as about 45 percent Catholic), this kind of xenophobia flies in the face of Catholic social teaching. Would Christ swear at a family escaping political violence, in desperate need of a home?

As Delaney Coyne, my colleague and another O’Hare fellow at America, notes in her interview with a migrant seeking refuge from political turmoil in Ecuador, these migrants are not here to make the lives of U.S. citizens harder; they’re here they have no other option.

I will always be proud of where I am from. But it is moments like these that remind us that there is always work needed to be done in the places that we love.

If the Catholics of Staten Island want to live out their own church’s teaching on immigration, they should revisit Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s recent statement, in which he says, “The Catholic belief that immigrants must be met with compassion and care has deep roots in the Bible.” At this moment, some residents of Staten Island are displaying the opposite of compassion.

Cardinal Dolan’s reference to the “deep roots” of care for the immigrant community appears many times in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, with quotes like “You shall not deprive the resident alien or the orphan of justice” (Dt 24:17). Whether these migrants are “legal” or not should not and does not determine their inherent human worth. Staten Islanders must do better to ensure that they are not deprived of justice.

Thankfully, other members of the community have been doing just that. Interfaith leaders throughout the borough have organized counterprotests expressing support for social services directed at migrants, in addition to hosting meals that have brought migrants and U.S-born citizens together. Following in the Catholic tradition, this breaking of bread fosters understanding and empathy toward the marginalized.

Hatred and fear of the other is easy, but extending one’s self and offering what one has to others requires bravery, something that charity rooted in faith helps to inspire.

A former editor in chief of America, Drew Christiansen, S.J. (a born-and-raised Staten Islander himself), once said this about his hometown: “Staten Island in those days was a set of villages, each with its own market street…. Shopping was a village experience, where we would meet and chat with friends, relatives and fellow parishioners.”

This version of Staten Island is the best of what the borough has to offer—community, fellowship and multiculturalism—rather than division and fear of one’s neighbor. I will always be proud of where I am from. But it is moments like these that remind us that there is always work needed to be done in the places that we love.

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