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For NJ’s Latino Community, Strong Economic Success and Lingering Struggles

Among the challenges faced by fastest-growing segment of state population, encouraging kids to attend -- and complete -- college

Phil Murphy, chairman of New Start New Jersey; Johanna Calle, program coordinator of New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice; Diana Gonzalez, graduate student representative on Rutgers University board of trustees; and Maria Heidkamp, director of New Start Career Network

Latinos as a group make up the fastest-growing segment of New Jersey’s population. They also contribute an estimated $46 billion in purchasing power to the state economy.

But experts participating in a policy forum on Latino issues yesterday said several obstacles are keeping them from achieving even more success, including education policies, immigration laws, and labor trends.

Analyzing those issues and identifying ways to address them was the goal of the event, which was hosted by New Start New Jersey, an organization led by Phil Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany who now lives in Middletown.

Some of the solutions that panelists came up with will undoubtedly take a lot of work to put in effect, like enacting comprehensive federal immigration reform in a gridlocked Congress. Others are simpler, such as encouraging Latino children at a young age to focus on going to -- and finishing -- college.

“There are steps we can take today in New Jersey that will improve the lives of our Latino brothers and sisters,” said Murphy, a Democrat who is considering running for governor next year.

But it was presidential politics that drew more attention during the forum, with the event coming the morning after businessman and television star Donald Trump won the Republican presidential primary in Indiana. That victory virtually ensures Trump will be the GOP’s presidential nominee in the November election.

Trump drew the ire of many Latinos across the country when he made disparaging remarks about Mexican immigrants in America at the onset of his presidential campaign last year, calling them criminals and rapists. And there are fears he would take hardline positions against immigrants if he were to become president.

“We hold this conversation at a critical moment,” Murphy said yesterday. “This is no longer an abstraction, but a reality.”

Overcoming stereotypes like those spread by Trump is one of the challenges that was discussed during the forum, which was held at the New Jersey Community Development Corp. in Paterson’s historic district. For example, New Jersey doesn’t have the nation’s largest Latino community among U.S. states, but it has the most diverse. So while many are Mexicans, New Jersey’s Latino population also includes Columbians, Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, and others.

And though there are many undocumented immigrants living in New Jersey, most of the state’s Latinos are legal.

“Everyone’s immigrant experience is very different,” said Diana Gonzalez, the graduate student representative on the Rutgers University Board of Trustees.

Gonzalez stressed the need for Latino students of all backgrounds to be encouraged from a very young age to start thinking about college. That’s because the rate of college completion for Latinos is more than half the rate for white non-Hispanics.

“It’s not about getting in, it’s about getting through,” she said.

Another big issue is getting access to financial aid, especially for students who are the children of undocumented immigrants. In 2013, Gov. Chris Christie enacted legislation to allow New Jersey students who are the children of undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition. But he’s refused to go a step further and provide them with access to financial aid.

Gordon MacInnes, president of the liberal Trenton-based think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, said that ends up hurting the state in the long run. Taxpayers have already invested heavily in those students’ K-12 education.

“We’ve made the investment, but we’re not going to get the payoff,” MacInnes said.

Many Latinos in New Jersey also suffer from wage theft, said Johanna Calle, program coordinator for the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. That’s when employers withhold from workers their full paycheck, or give them no pay at all. The problem is particularly nettlesome for undocumented immigrants who may be reluctant to alert authorities because of their immigration status.

“This happens a lot,” Calle said.

But workers are starting to fight back, either by taking complaints to the U.S. Department of Labor or organizing as a group and demonstrating against abusive employers. Calle said cities in New Jersey are also being lobbied to pass local wage-theft ordinances.

“It’s not just an undocumented immigrant issue. It’s a workers issue,” she said. “It does impact all Latino community members.”

Allowing undocumented workers to obtain a driver’s license is also a top issue, Calle said. Though it has come up in the State House, a driver’s license bill has yet to be passed.

New Start New Jersey, founded in 2014, has also focused heavily on long-term unemployment as part of its mission to strengthen the state’s middle class. Maria Heidkamp, director of the group’s New Start Career Network, said state data shows unemployment rates among Latinos are higher than the state’s overall jobless rate. She said Latinos also make up a large share of those who have exhausted unemployment benefits.

The New Start Career Network has been focused on helping those age 45 and older who have been out of work for six months or longer with career counseling and mentoring. Getting the state’s employer community, including Latino business leaders, to take another look at the long-term unemployed is another one of the group’s goals.

“We absolutely need to break down the discrimination that these job seekers are facing,” Heidkamp said.

Christie, a second-term Republican who endorsed Trump earlier this year, will reach the end of his term in early 2018. Murphy has said he’s seriously considering running for governor next year, but has not made a final decision.

If Murphy does run, he is likely to face at least two other serious primary opponents, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. Longtime Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) has also announced his candidacy.

On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno recently became affiliated with a nonprofit organization set up in a similar way to New Start New Jersey, sparking intrigue about a possible gubernatorial. Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, (both R-Union), are among the other Republicans who could join her in a primary.

But Murphy was focused yesterday only on the state’s Latino community. And he said the value of the event would be measured later, by looking at “what happens after today.”

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