Advocates for immigrants’ rights are urging New Jersey towns and counties to resist pressure to cooperate with federal enforcement efforts that are expected to increase under the Trump administration.
Supporters of about two dozen groups belonging to the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice gathered at the College of New Jersey in Ewing on Saturday for a day-long summit to discuss ways of responding to the threat of more detentions and deportations of undocumented immigrants when President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January.
They called on counties to reject any more requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deputize local authorities in detaining undocumented immigrants under Section 287g of the Immigration and Nationality Act which allows the federal government to enter into such agreements with state and local law-enforcement agencies.
Such agreements already exist in Hudson and Monmouth Counties, while one is being considered in Salem County, activists said.
Although it’s unclear whether Trump will follow through on campaign promises to deport all of the estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., deport only those with criminal records, or build a wall along the US-Mexican border, advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the American Friends Service Committee urged supporters to prepare for a more aggressive federal policy on immigration enforcement.
Although recent reports have suggested that Trump has softened an earlier pledge to eject all undocumented immigrants, activists still fear more deportations than under President Obama, whose administration deported some 2.5 million undocumented immigrants between 2009 and 2014, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The detention or deportation of millions more immigrants would be beyond the current capacity of the federal immigration authorities unless they enlist the support of local law enforcement, said Ari Rosmarin, Public Policy Director of the ACLU of New Jersey.
“The Trump administration is going to need a lot of boots on the ground to do its dirty work,” he told the conference.
It’s possible that the new administration will begin deporting undocumented immigrants if they are arrested on suspicion of a crime, rather than waiting for a conviction, and may press for longer prison terms for convicted criminals who are also found guilty of immigration violations, he said.
The new administration may also step up its efforts to identify undocumented immigrants by using E-Verify, a government-run, internet-based system that allows employers to check whether a job applicant is eligible to work in the United States, Rosmarin said.
He argued that advocates for New Jersey’s estimated 450,000 undocumented immigrants should assume that Trump’s campaign pledges to crack down on illegal immigration will become policy. “We should not take them for anything but what they are saying,” he said.
Undocumented immigrants who would be vulnerable to any new crackdown include Esperanza Del Barrera, 58, a native of Peru, who has over-stayed the visa on which she came to the United States four years ago.
Del Barrera, who lives in Newark and works as a babysitter, said she came to the U.S. to be with her two daughters, who also overstayed their visas and remain undocumented.
She said on the sidelines of the conference that she has become more worried about the threat of deportation since the election of Donald Trump but has faith that she and her daughters will be able to stay in the United States. She chose to attend the conference and speak to a reporter because, like many other undocumented immigrants, she wants to argue for the right to remain in the country.
“For me particularly, since I’m fighting this fight, I am not afraid,” Del Barrera said, through a translator. “But I’m afraid for my daughters’ lives because they live in the shadows.” She declined to be photographed.
Activists are also concerned about the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama administration initiative that allows about 750,000 “dreamers” --young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children -- to defer deportation for a renewable period of two years, during which they can continue to live and work legally in the United States.
US Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told the conference that if Trump acts on a campaign promise to end DACA, it would subject the young people to the threat of deportation and cause billions of dollars in economic damage to the U.S. companies that employ them.
“By dismantling the program, the president-elect would strip these young people of their jobs, their education, their communities, their future, and their faith and trust in the government of the land they have come to know and love,” Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, said. “They are Americans in every way except for a piece of paper.”
In a possible reprieve for DACA, it would be protected by the Bridge Act, bipartisan legislation introduced on Friday in the U.S. Senate. The bill, cosponsored by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, would allow young immigrants who have qualified for DACA to stay in the United States for three years if the program is canceled.
The Trump transition team did not respond to questions on whether the new administration will increase use of the 287g rule to enlist state and local agencies to work with ICE or end DACA.
Any decision to scrap the DACA program could have dire consequences for Edison Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant from Uruguay, whose 16-year-old daughter qualifies for the program.
Hernandez, 51, who lives in Elizabeth, said his daughter was born in Uruguay two years before he and his wife moved to the United States. They also have a 12-year-old son who was born in the United States and so is a U.S. citizen.
Hernandez, a construction worker who supports the immigrants’ rights nonprofit Make the Road New Jersey, said he is bracing for more deportations under the new administration.
“As an organization, we are preparing for the worst,” he said, through a translator. “If there are deportations, we are preparing to defend ourselves.”
Hernandez said he would like to become a U.S. citizen but does not know how he could do so. “There would have to be an immigration reform legislation passed to allow me to adjust my status and eventually become a citizen,” he said.
Meanwhile, Menendez is urging Jeh Johnson, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, to end the 287g rule before the end of the current administration.
While Johnson did not give a commitment on that request, Menendez said he will continue to press to end the program because of concern that it could be used by the Trump administration to crack down on illegal immigration.
“How that might be used by the next administration is really consequential,” he said, to applause from the approximately 140 conference attendees.
Advocates urged the public to call on county authorities to end their cooperation with ICE or not to begin it.
“The biggest pressure has to be at the freeholder level,” said Johanna Calle, program coordinator for the alliance. “If you are a resident of Hudson County, Monmouth County, Salem County, and this is something that concerns you, call your freeholders, call your county executives, let them know that this is not something that you want your money going into.”
She said the 287g program uses county staff and other resources, paid for by local tax dollars, to do the work that would normally be done by federal immigration officers.
Counties that have agreed to work with ICE are not compensated by the federal government but may be reluctant to cut those ties if they also rent space in county jails to house immigrant detainees -- a service for which some get paid millions of dollars by ICE, Calle said.
The possibility of losing federal revenue also applies to “sanctuary cities” such as Newark and Princeton which have said that they will not cooperate with federal policy that aims to detain or deport undocumented immigrants, she said.
“A lot of cities and counties, with the threat of the federal government defunding their agencies because they do sanctuary-city policies -- they are going to have to decide whether they can find other ways to get paid if they no longer participate in these programs,” she said.