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Prisoners of Fear: NJ’s Undocumented Immigrants

Recent roundups and immigration police activity have locals afraid to leave their houses to shop, work, or take kids to school

Despite New Jersey’s standing as a state sympathetic to undocumented immigrants, many locals are now living in desperate fear of deportation. That’s causing them to keep children home from school; avoid openly looking for work; steer clear of restaurants and public spaces; and even shy away from walking the streets.

Unlike the typical feeling of vulnerability caused by a lack of legal status, this heightened anxiety has been triggered by recent enforcement actions around the state and increased raids by the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency throughout the country. They are expected to continue at least through this month if not through the year.

ICE insists these raids are focused on suspected criminals, very recent immigrants who have crossed the border illegally or have been ordered removed by an immigration court. But locals believe these actions are meant to indiscriminately round up all suspected undocumented residents, breaking up families that have built lives in New Jersey.

“Everybody is afraid of immigration, of ICE,” said Jose Avila, an undocumented immigrant from Peru. “We are afraid to even go walking.”

shadow ice arrest
Credit: Martin Griff
ICE's first major raid in New Jersey, at the end of 2015, was related to gang suspects. The agency coordinated with the state Gang Task Force on this and other police activity.

A Newark pastor has advised his congregation not to answer knocks on the door unless they are sure who is on the other side, said one woman from Brazil, who owns her own cleaning business, has two children who are U.S. citizens, and has lived in Newark for 24 years. She has tried repeatedly to get a green card.

The woman said it has become a common occurrence at her church to take up collections for bail when someone gets caught in a ICE raid. Two men from the congregation, she said, were deported, leaving their wives and children behind. The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said there have been roundups at work depots, adding that most of her friends believe they will be found through Facebook and overdue traffic tickets.

“People are afraid to work,” said Bigberto Chavez, who is from Honduras.

“They are afraid that ICE will go to the warehouses” where many undocumented people work, he said.

“One time in my workplace there was a false alarm that ICE was coming to check status,” said Elizabeth Ruiz, a Mexican immigrant living in Somerset. “I remember that everybody ran outside and hid themselves.“

She said that many women in the New Brunswick-Somerset community are single mothers, and they are worried that, should they be detained, there will be no one to look after their children.

Ruiz, who has lived in the United States for 12 years, feels that she is an American, but she does not have a path to legalizing her immigration status -- let alone seeking citizenship.

The genesis of the ICE enforcement actions is President Barack Obama’s 2014 executive action regarding immigration. The action called for expanded border security and enforcement, as well as a number of programs that granted “deferred action” to undocumented immigrants with a history in the United States. This meant that these immigrants would be temporarily exempted from deportation, and it granted them the legal right to work after they submitted to background checks.

But all did not go as Obama planned. Texas and a group of other Republican-led states filed suit against the reformist parts of Obama’s program, and those elements are now on hold waiting a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is currently deadlocked on controversial matters due to the vacancy on the court. Meanwhile, the enforcement elements of the plan were left standing.

That has led to a surge in enforcement raids throughout the country and reportedly massive actions in southern states. In New Jersey, there have also been arrests in Freehold, New Brunswick, Princeton, Plainfield, and elsewhere. But ICE officials say the terror that these actions has caused is unfounded, and actions in other states are not similar to New Jersey arrests.

But activists argue that the news of local arrests have had real impact in immigrant communities. It’s resulted in undocumented immigrants sliding back into the shadows.

shadow family
Credit: Martin Griff
A family from Brazil works with the mother on the children's homework assignments.

ICE in Newark said the New Jersey actions were focused on undocumented immigrants viewed as threats -- such as those with gang affiliations, violent arrest histories, or who pose a threat to national security. This stepping up of that type of enforcement activity was outlined in an executive order issued earlier this year.

Clearly, ICE is working with various task forces around the state. In April, they arrested 46 suspected sex offenders. The first major raid in New Jersey, at the end of 2015, was related to gang suspects. Immigrants said immigration joined with the state Gang Task Force to make arrests.

The problem, according to locals, is that these are suspects and that many task forces get wrong information. They are unconvinced and believe ICE is casting a much wider net. Immigration advocates said many who have been detained in New Jersey are not violent, and may have only the slimmest of connections to violent gangs.

“Some people they claim are gang members are not,” said Edward Correa, of United & Organized in Morris County. “Maybe because these kids, when they were 15, when they were younger, they wrote something on their Facebook page, they got a tattoo -- but in reality, they were not initiated and they were not involved in gangs whatsoever.”

Oscar Barbosa -- the Elizabeth-based immigration attorney representing German Nieto-Cruz, who was picked up at his home in New Brunswick and detained at the Essex County Jail because of his alleged gang affiliation -- would not comment on the case, but said “the system is rigged.”

Nieto-Cruz’s family disputes the charges and has been working to have him released from the jail, which is one of the facilities that holds ICE detainees.

ICE officials say that public safety concerns led to the detention of the 21-year-old graduate of New Brunswick High School.

“Nieto-Cruz was a priority,” Alvin Phillips, spokesman for ICE’s New Jersey office, said in February. “He had a bail hearing and was not released.”

But Barbosa echoes Correa’s criticisms.

“There are multiple people detained because of their Facebook pictures, hand signs, and clothes -- and referred to ICE by the state Gang Task Force,” Barbosa said via email. “Many of these have no arrests, no criminal record.”

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced in January that immigration enforcement would be stepped up, and he said the ICE, which falls under his agency, would add a new category of undocumented immigrants to the agency’s priority list -- those who came from Central America across the Mexican border beginning in the summer of 2014. That’s led to the raids in the southwest and west.

Although New Jersey is home to an estimated 509,000 unauthorized immigrants, it has not seen much of an increase due to the Central American surge of 2014, other than children seeking asylum and staying with relatives.

At the New Brunswick office of New Labor, a workers’ rights group, immigrants said they were unwilling to talk with officials or reporters to confirm or deny the reports. This fear, they said, has affected their ability to earn a leaving. Activists said this reticence creates public safety issues for the entire community, as undocumented immigrants no longer want to report crimes or speak to the police.

Phillips, the ICE spokesman, said there were 139 people detained in New Jersey in January, down from 176 in December.

“Does that indicate that major surge or raise has occurred,” he asked. “The answer is ‘no.’ Obviously, if there were, the numbers would have increased in month of January when the announcements were made.”

shadow essex county jail
Credit: Martin Griff
The Essex County Jail is one of the facilities that ICE uses to hold detainees, sometimes for months if not for years.

In May, Phillips issued a written statement in response to questions about the latest ICE actions. He said the focus remains on “public safety and border security,” and that the enforcement priorities DHS has announced include the removal of convicted criminals and others who constitute threats to public safety and national security, as well as recent border crossers The most recent ICE actions “are a continuation of operations Secretary Johnson announced in January and March. We stress that these operations are limited to those who were apprehended at the border after January 1, 2014, have been ordered removed by an immigration court, and have no pending appeal or pending claim for asylum or other humanitarian relief under our laws.”

Immigration groups throughout the state have been hosting “know your rights” sessions and distributing pamphlets. These groups are seeking to explain to unauthorized immigrants that they do have rights, that they need to make a plan for what will happen to their families and their homes if they are detained, and that they have access to lawyers.

Irenes Arce, who works with the Ironbound Community Corp. in Newark, said there has been a chill in the Ironbound neighborhood.

“They fear who ever is knocking on the door,” she said. “They think it is immigration. They are afraid to even come out to the community center when we have events because they are afraid they might get stopped,” Arce said. The ICC offers classes in parenting, nutrition, spoken English, and other topics.

Molly Greenberg, who also works with the ICC in Newark, said they hear only from the informal network about what is going on . “An immigrant who feels safe will tell us that a frequent visitor to the community center is afraid.”

The fear, she said, “is imprisoning them. They are not in a detention center but they are stuck in their home.”

Reynalda Cruz, an organizer with New Labor, said that the New Brunswick community as a whole is scared – which is not necessarily a new feeling. The city is about 50 percent Latino, with a significant portion being undocumented. They might hear that ICE is on French Street, which runs through a heavily Latino section of the community, and that will cause them to stay home.

“They won’t go to work. They don’t go shopping for maybe three or four days,” she said.

Maria Juega, executive director of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which works primarily in Princeton and Trenton, said the fear felt by immigrants can have dangerous consequences.

“None of this is healthy for our community, at large,” she said. “Having a population that is so marginalized and so fearful to show their face in public is very negative for everybody.”

Juega said that, in the current environment, “anyone who has the word police on them” is distrusted. (ICE agents wear vests that say ICE Police.)

Joanna Calle, of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said that any raid, any enforcement action, “could affect (immigrants’) ability to trust law enforcement.”

“If you see a police officer, you might think it might be ICE,” she said. “If they have a badge, they are a government official and (immigrants) have a fear of interacting with government officials. So they won’t go for services even when they are entitled to them because they are afraid to interact with the government.”

Greenberg, of the Ironbound, said the Johnson announcement “was very public” and it “raised a lot of alarms,” but the immigrant community has been dealing with this fear for a long time.

“There always is the added stress, the added burden, the added fear that our families face,” she said. “Now there is an additional fear because of the public raids and the rumors. But it is a constant presence in their lives.”

Phillips of ICE said law-abiding immigrants should not fear ICE, and that the agency’s focus is only on those who pose a danger to the community. The actions on the southern border, he added, have nothing to do with ICE operations in New Jersey.

“The people of this state should not ever be fearful of ICE officers,” he said. “We are here to enforce the immigration enforcement priorities and to provide safe communities for all.”

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