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Profile: Impeccable Credentials for Working with Undocumented

Johanna Calle, director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, was undocumented for 11 years

johanna calle
Johanna Calle

Who: Johanna Calle

Age: 32

Hometown: Hackensack

Family: Married

What she does: Director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice

How she got there: Calle earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology from The College of New Jersey and a master’s degree in criminal justice from Rutgers University. She held several jobs, working as a medical staff coordinator at a hospital, in development for the American Civil Liberties Union and as a bilingual teacher in a Newark elementary school. When a position opened up at the alliance, Calle applied, because she “really wanted to work with impacted folks.” She started with the Alliance four years ago and was named director last month.

Unique perspective on immigrant issues: Calle spent 11 years in the United States as an undocumented immigrant. She was born in Ecuador. When her parents lost their business, they decided to come to the United States. Calle’s father had a relative living in Hackensack and came over first. The rest of the family followed — Calle was in fifth grade when she arrived in 1996.

“My parents wanted us to have a better life, and they did not think that would come in Ecuador,” Calle said.

She was undocumented until her junior year in college. She was able to get a green card in 2007 after her parents divorced and her father remarried an American and petitioned for his children. She became a U.S. citizen in 2012.

As a high school student, she began fighting for what was then known as the Dream Act in 2004 by soliciting fellow students to sign petitions urging Congress to pass the bill, which was similar to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that has kept young, undocumented immigrants who signed up safe from deportation but which included a path to citizenship after six years. Still, she said she didn’t tell her classmates of her personal interest in getting the law passed.

“No one knew I was undocumented,” Calle said. “They would ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and I would just say, ‘It’s important.’ I did not come out as undocumented until I had a green card. I give a lot of credit to this next generation of Dreamers. They are being quite vocal. I advocated in the quietest way possible.”

Her work at NJAIJ: Calle’s early focus was on changing New Jersey law to allow undocumented immigrants to be able to get a driver’s license. It was a no-win situation from the beginning, as former Gov. Chris Christie said he would not sign such a law. Still, she tried to get legislation to move through the Legislature in 2014 and 2015.

“Then the presidential campaign started and Donald Trump was out there with his very hateful rhetoric and Chris Christie followed along,” Calle said. “It was a very difficult time.”

The alliance switched gears and pushed instead for municipal identification cards for immigrants — Calle said New Jersey has the most municipal ID programs of any state — and in getting communities to sign on as “fair and welcoming,” or what have more commonly been called sanctuary cities. New Jersey has a number of such communities, which have agreed not to help U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents capture or detain undocumented immigrants, with Jersey City, Newark, and East Orange among the largest.

Calle has also grown the size of the alliance, from nine member organizations to almost 40, including the ACLU of New Jersey, the Latino Action Network, New Jersey Working Families, Catholic Charities of Metuchen and Trenton and the Ironbound Community Corporation.

Decades of frustration: The fight for the Dream Act, for comprehensive immigration reform, and even for smaller things like a driver’s license has been going on for decades.

“There was a blue-ribbon panel report to Gov. Corzine and everything in it is still something we are fighting for today,” Calle said, referring to a group created in 2007 that delivered a 123-page report two years later that made dozens of recommendations, with a driver’s license or “driver’s privilege card” among them. The latter would not serve as an official ID for an immigrant trying to cross the border to Canada or Mexico, say, but it was possible to get one without a Social Security number and use it to buy car insurance. “We are a nonpartisan group. The reality is that Democratic and Republican leaders have used immigration as a ping pong game.”

The recent fight in Congress for a permanent law to replace DACA, which Trump is seeking to end on March 5, has been especially frustrating. First, Democrats refused to approve a federal spending bill without an immigration fix, prompting a brief government shutdown. Then, Democrats backed down. Last week, a compromise bill that Calle and other immigrants’ rights activists found too restrictive, failed to get enough votes. With no viable solution in sight, Calle said activists must continue to push Congress to act.

“The lack of action on immigration reform falls at the feet of every legislator who has been in office in the last 20 years … People can get very angry about the undocumented who are here, but the fact is there are 11 million in the country, more than a half million in New Jersey, and they are not all going to leave.”

A better landscape in New Jersey for achieving goals: The future looks brighter with a new governor who has promised New Jersey will be “fair and welcoming” to all and has already taken steps to prove that — by promising to establish a state office to assist the undocumented and by joining a multistate lawsuit opposing the Trump administration’s effort to end DACA. Calle said the alliance’s top priority remains getting New Jersey to give driver’s licenses to the undocumented.

The license is so important because there are many parts of the state where people can’t get around without a car and, should DACA be allowed to end, the Dreamers will join the ranks of other undocumented residents and lose their licenses. Driving without a license “is a big funnel into deportation,” Calle said. “You might be stopped and cited for driving without a license. That funnels you into the criminal justice system and then that puts you on ICE’s radar.”

She said she was heartened that Murphy went to the Highland Park church where an undocumented immigrant was seeking sanctuary from deportation to lend his support to the man, and to the families of two other Indonesians whom ICE had picked up.

“Gov. Murphy has definitely said he cares about the issue,” Calle said. “He said he wants to do driver’s licenses in his first 100 days.”

Then there will be the fight to give undocumented students access to financial aid for college, which Calle said is critical to enabling them to afford a higher education and, ultimately, a better life.

Seeing the glass as half-full: As bad as the past 13 months have been for the undocumented, Calle said the attacks by Trump and his administration on immigrants have helped advocates and activists to mobilize. NJAIJ is a nonprofit and nonpartisan group and so will not get involved in this year’s Congressional elections. But the resignations of two New Jersey Republican representatives and dozens of others across the country, and the polling data that shows widespread support for Dreamers, are not lost on Calle.

“The election of Donald Trump has made our movement stronger,” she said. “We would never have imagined all these legislative seats would be up for grabs. We would never have imagined we would have this opportunity to potentially change government.”

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