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NJ Joins Legal Battle Over Trump’s ‘Zero-Tolerance’ Immigration Policy

Attorney general signs on to multistate lawsuit alleging administration’s actions at Southwestern borders are unconstitutional

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal

Given that nearly 40 percent of New Jersey’s population comprises immigrants or the children of immigrants, it may not come as a surprise that the state is launching another legal battle over the Trump administration’s controversial “zero-tolerance” immigration policies.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced that New Jersey on Tuesday joined a multistate federal lawsuit led by Washington state against the federal government, alleging that the administration’s refusing to accept asylum seekers and separating families violates the Constitution and undermines states’ interests. The government’s goal, the suit contends, is to “create a public spectacle designed to deter potential immigrants” from seeking asylum in America.

Immigration advocates are praising the state’s action, noting that changes in the way officials are carrying out their duties at the border is affecting New Jersey. Fathers separated from their children are being held in the Elizabeth Detention Center, children separated from their families are being placed by a Camden social services organization, and the number of refugees settling in the state has slowed to a trickle.

“Our country is facing a horrific moral crisis and it is incumbent on all of us to stand up and fight,” said Sara Cullinane, director of Make the Road New Jersey, an immigrants’ rights organization. “Our attorney general is standing up because he is defending the values of our state and our country.”

Unlawful barriers, not unlawful entry

The five-count federal complaint alleges that border officials are “unlawfully” refusing entry to “families fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries who try to present themselves at Southwestern ports of entry to seek asylum,” telling them that “the United States is ‘full’ or no longer accepting asylum seekers.” It also criticized the forced separation of more than 2,000 children from their families, which was to have stopped as a result of Trump’s June 20 executive order and said that “emerging reports suggest that immigration officials are now using the children taken from their parents as leverage to coerce parents to withdraw their asylum claims.”

“Every day, it seems like the Administration is issuing new, contradictory policies and relying on new, contradictory justifications,” Grewal said in a statement announcing his joining of the federal suit. “But we can’t forget: the lives of real people hang in the balance. Hundreds of children remain forcibly separated from their parents ... We should be protecting families, not traumatizing them. We should be safeguarding children, not using them as leverage in a half-baked effort to deter illegal immigration.”

The complaint also alleges, the Trump policy adversely impacts New Jersey and the other participating states financially “to remediate the harms” inflicted on families.

“State programs, including child-welfare services, social and health services, courts and public schools, are all experiencing fiscal impacts that will only increase,” the complaint asserts.

Family values: ‘NJ style’

In New Jersey, the law holds that “the preservation and strengthening of family life is a matter of public concern” and includes a mandate “to make reasonable efforts … to preserve the family in order to prevent the need for removing the child from his or her parents.” And it requires that “any proceeding which may result in even a temporary loss of custody of a child implicates a parents’ State constitutional right to appointed counsel.” Those facing charges of violating immigration laws have no right to counsel under the federal system.

“Children who are forciblly separated from their families face unimaginable trauma from these experiences,” said Johanna Calle, director of New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “It is clear that these practices are only meant to dehumanize people and manufacture a humanitarian crisis by ignoring our most basic values.”

Cullinane said some fathers who were forcibly separated from their children at the border are currently being detained a the Immigration Customs and Enforcement detention center in Elizabeth, although it is unclear how many. The center holds other immigrant parents, some of whom have lived in New Jersey for more than a decade but have been taken from their children as part of ICE’s aggressive enforcement efforts.

An unknown number of children separated from their parents have been placed at the Center for Family Services in Camden, which receives a federal grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement for the purpose of assisting children crossing the border, said Jen Hammill, an associate vice president with the organization.

CFFS expanded its safe housing continuum in 2017 to provide temporary shelter to children crossing the southern border, according to an information sheet it provided. Its services are focused on assessing and meeting the needs of each child, providing them with counseling, accompanying them at court appearances, and helping them locate an eligible sponsor or family member. Its fact sheet states, “Family reunification is the primary goal.”

“Our goal is keeping kids safe, regardless of the reasons,” Hammill said in a statement. “We believe children are best served when with their family.”

Through a program called Juntos, the Center For Family Services operates a home for 20 boys and girls ages 13-17; a home for four mothers and babies; and community shelter homes for pregnant teens, groups of siblings and children age 12 and younger.

Throttling the flow of immigrants to NJ

Cullinane said Trump’s changes in immigration policy have dramaticlly decreased the number of people granted asylum settling in New Jersey. Data from the U.S. Refugee Processing Center Resettlement show that 314 refugees came to New Jersey in fical 2015. In the first nine months of this fiscal year, that number was 85. So far this year, only one Iraqi refugee has settled in New Jersey, compared with 13 in 2015.

"This is a massive assault on people fleeing violence in their home countries," Cullinane said. "It just flies in the face of American values. This country was founded by people who were fleeing persecution."

Her comments follow the state Assembly’s passing of AR-175, a resolution condemning the separation of immigrant children and families, which it calls “government-sanctioned child abuse.” The Monday vote to approve the resolution and send it to the Senate was 62-2 with five abstentions.

“Although President Trump has signed an executive order ending these separations, the administration still has no real plan for how to reunite those children with their parents,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vaineri Huttle (D-Bergen), a cosponsor of the resolution.

“It’s important that we get these children back to their families as soon as possible,” said Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex) and another co-sponsor. “These separations could last months or longer, because there are few protocols in place to determine how and when these families will get reunited. The longer these children are kept away from their parents, the greater the likelihood that they will suffer physically or emotionally.”

The resolution states that some experts suggest separation may lead to short-term developmental delays and long-term health issues, including heart disease, cancer, and morbid obesity, as well as numbing, anger, and crying. Parent-child separation also can increase anxiety and depression in adolescents.

On the DACA front

Grewal also announced that U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen agreed to allow New Jersey to intervene in a separate lawsuit, led by Texas, seeking to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that has allowed 800,000 immigrants nationwide — including more than 17,000 New Jerseyans — to remain in the United States and work for two years at a time.

The Trump administration announced its intention to end DACA in 2017, but several courts have prevented the program from ending. Texas and six other states had filed a lawsuit in federal court in the Southern District of Texas arguing that DACA is illegal because it was created without congressional action. The suit seeks to stop the federal government from issuing or renewing DACA permits in the future.

Grewal’s office estimates that New Jersey is home to an 53,000 DACA-eligible residents and 17,400 current, active DACA grantees. About 15,900 DACA grantees in New Jersey are currently employed; more than 900 own their own businesses; 7,800 are in school; 5,600 are pursuing a bachelor’s, master’s, or professional degree; and 12,650 have an American citizen sibling, spouse or child. According to the state’s brief in its motion to intervene, one recent study placed the spending power of DACA-eligible individuals in New Jersey at an estimated $679.7 million. If DACA were terminated, the brief contends, New Jersey would lose an estimated $19 million per year in tax revenues.

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