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Christie Turns Back on NJ Immigrants in Bid for GOP Right, Critics Contend

Governor signs on to amicus brief asking court to block Obama policy to allow some unlawful immigrant children, parents to stay in country

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Gov. Chris Christie

Gov. Chris Christie appears to be moving in a new direction on immigration, signing onto an amicus brief calling on the federal courts to prevent the Obama administration from implementing new rules designed to defer deportations for millions nationally, angering many in the New Jersey Latino community.

The governor -- who has not commented publicly on the amicus brief -- won a majority of Latinos during his 2013 reelection campaign, a rarity among Republicans nationally and a fact that many political observers said made him a potentially solid candidate for his party’s nomination.

With the Republican base -- especially those in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina -- skewing to the right and generally opposing anything short of deportation of immigrants in the country illegally, the governor appears to have shifted gears, though whether this will be effective in capturing the Republican right is hard to say, given that he signed legislation granting in-state tuition to unauthorized immigrant students.

“The context is fairly simple, as far as the governor is concerned, it is now not about New Jersey,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers. “It is about messages to a very conservative primary electorate and conservative money people.”

Supporters of the executive order, who criticized Christie for ignoring the state’s Latino population, one of the largest in the nation, say it would have allowed about 150,000 unauthorized immigrants to come out of the shadows in New Jersey, because it would have temporarily alleviated their fears of deportation. The executive order, issued in November, would have created two programs. One would allow unauthorized immigrants who had citizen children to apply for temporary relief from deportation, allowing them to apply for work permits, Social Security numbers, and driver’s licenses. The other would have expanded a 2012 order covering so-called childhood arrivals, or those brought to the United States illegally by their parents. The Obama administration has said that the executive order would have aided about 5 million immigrants nationally, most of whom would be the parents of citizen children.

The order was put on hold in February, days before going into effect, after a federal judge in Texas ruled in a suit filed by 26 states that Obama’s immigration programs “would impose major burdens on states, unleashing illegal immigration and straining state budgets, and that the administration had not followed required procedures for changing federal rules,” according to The New York Times. Thirteen states, led by Washington state, filed an appeal and requested a stay of the injunction, and a hearing is scheduled for April 17, according to the Latin Post.

On March 23, Christie joined three other Republican governors -- Greg Abbott of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota -- in filing an amicus brief that asks the Fifth Circuit court to maintain an injunction barring enforcement of the Obama executive order issued in November. Christie and Jindahl are considered likely Republican presidential candidates.

The amicus brief argues that the Obama order would cause the states “irreparable harm,” because it would allow the issuance of driver’s licenses, work permits, and Social Security numbers, which in turn will allow unauthorized immigrants to receive additional benefits, such as the earned-income tax credit, healthcare, and other services that would cost states money.

It also questions “whether the President can unilaterally legalize the presence of millions of people,” saying that the order usurps Congress’ legislative authority.

Kevin Roberts, spokesman for Christie, said Wednesday that he could confirm that the governor signed onto the brief. Roberts said the governor was signing on as an individual, and not representing the state. He would not offer any further comment.

Christie’s critics were quick to respond to news of the order.

Lizette Delgado-Polanco, vice chairwoman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, issued a statement calling the governor’s action “a deeply irresponsible, partisan act.”

A 2014 Pew Research Center review of U.S. Census data found that there were 1.88 million foreign-born residents in the state in 2012, or 21.2 percent of the population. Only California, New York, Texas, and Florida had larger immigrant populations and only California and New York had a higher percentage of foreign-borns.

The state-level numbers do not differentiate between those here legally or illegally, though about 55 percent of the 40.7 million foreign-born residents of the United States are noncitizens and advocates say it is likely the percentage in New Jersey is similar.

Alix Nguefack, the Detention Project coordinator for the Immigrant Rights Program with the American Friends Service Committee in Newark, called the governor’s decision a “political tactic.” New Jersey, she said, has one of the largest immigrant populations in the nation” and it is this “constituency he should be concerned with.”

“It is really disturbing for the immigrant community to see he is taking this position and not taking into account who is in the state, and what is their contribution to the state,” Nguefack said.

Erika Nava, a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, says about 137,000 parents in New Jersey could have been eligible under what is called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, and another 12,000 would be eligible under the expanded portion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

About 50,000 immigrant children had been eligible under the original DACA program, which was created by executive order in 2012 and was not affected by the Texas court ruling. About 17,500 immigrant children in New Jersey have already applied and been approved for deferred action under the original DACA program, which was limited to children who were 16 or younger when they entered the country and had an age limit of 31. The expanded program now covers those who came in when they were 18 and younger and no longer includes the age limit.

According to the National Immigration Law Center, if the courts side with the Obama administration, deferred action would be granted on a case-by-case basis and offer relief, though no guarantees, against deportation. People granted a deferral are “considered by the federal government to be lawfully present in the U.S.,” but do not have a path to legal residency or citizenship. To be eligible for DAPA, applicants need to be the parent of a U.S. citizen or legal, permanent resident, have lived in the country continuously since January 1, 2010, lack legal immigration status, and have not been convicted of a serious crime, according to the law center.

Chia-Chia Wang, advocacy and organizing director for the American Friends Service Committee, said the program would have reached beyond the people who were eligible to their families and the communities in which they lived. The program could mean higher wages for immigrants, which would mean more money being spent in the community. It also would alleviate some fears, which could lead immigrants to be more comfortable interacting with police.

“In general, under DACA, people would be able to work with work permits, apply for driver’s licenses, so they may be able to make more money,” she said. Many unauthorized immigrants also face problems in the work place -- wage theft, abusive or dangerous work conditions -- because of their status.

“They won’t be subject to wage and other exploitation,” Wang said. “And they may be able to get a better paid job. There are a lot of economic benefits attached to that.”

Wang said there is a lot of confusion in the immigrant community, and that advocates are working to explain both the programs and the delays.

“We got a lot of calls from people trying to make appointments with us for DACA and DAPA,” she said. “People are extremely disappointed. People don’t understand what this actually means.

The American Friends Service Committee and other groups have held information sessions explaining the program, and they will continue reaching out, hoping to ensure that people are ready to apply if the order goes back into effect.

“There are a large number of immigrants who qualified who are pretty confused about what is happening. As advocates, we are watching how this is playing out and we need to figure out how to translate it.”

In the meantime, Wang said, the governor is likely to lose support of Latino voters, especially in New Jersey. Nguefack, her colleague at AFSC, agreed.

“The decision has nothing to do with New Jersey,” she said. “He is targeting a different audience now. He is targeting an audience that will help him get the national party nomination.”

Academics who study state and national politics said they were not surprised that the governor appears more concerned with a national audience.

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said that, because the governor is not running in New Jersey again, “he is not as focused on the Hispanic community as he is with the Republican primary electorate, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire.”

“I think he is trying to thread the needle,” he said. “He joined this, as his supporters will claim, he joined this individually (as governor) on a legal brief, but he hasn’t joined the lawsuit. For them it is a distinction. He is arguing the legality of the action and not the policy. He is arguing that the president doesn’t have the authority to do this. That may be a fine point that will be lost on a lot of folks, but to today’s national Republican primary electorate opposing Obama executive orders is not an unpopular position.”

Redlawsk said New Jersey voters “generally support immigration reforms,” based on the polling, “but they are not the people voting in the primaries, who are to the right of the average Republican and opposed to anything Obama does and particularly to this.”

Redlawsk, however, is not sure whether the effort will pay fruit politically, given that cultural conservatives like those who dominate Iowa already view him with distrust as the governor of a Northeastern state and someone who has courted Latinos in the past.

“The strategy on this is clearly an Iowa-focused strategy,” Redlawsk said. “The Republican caucus goers are livid at what Obama is doing and immigration is high on this list.

“The question is whether anything Christie does can make those strong conservatives think he is a strong social conservative.”

In the past, Redlawsk said, candidates could offer different messages to different audiences, but that is no longer the case.

In Christie’s case, his signature on the state’s tuition equity law, which allow unauthorized students who grew up in the state and graduated from New Jersey high schools to qualify for instate tuition, and his courting of the Latino vote leading up to the 2013 election may continue to be an issue for him with more conservative voters, Redlawsk said.

“It is very different world,” he said. “It used to be the case where a politician could easily tailor his message to an audience. Mitt Romney found out that when you do this, you run the risk of either being recorded, or people can easily go back to earlier things you’ve said.”

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