U.S. Immigration Crackdown Drives NJ’s Undocumented Deeper into Shadows

Advocates and immigrants urge lawmakers to make New Jersey a sanctuary state, one that will not cooperate with ICE if it makes broad sweeps of undocumented communities

Immigrants and advocates concerned about the national crackdown on the undocumented may have a sympathetic ally in legislative Democrats, but it’s doubtful Gov. Chris Christie will support any of their suggestions for protecting those born abroad who consider New Jersey their home.

Testifying to high levels of fear and anxiety among the state’s immigrant communities, a number of lawyers and advocates, as well as two undocumented young people, told an Assembly committee last Friday that the state and local governments should take steps to protect immigrants, or at least turn a blind eye to the recently launched federal crackdown on the undocumented. One even suggested that New Jersey declare itself a sanctuary that refuses to help federal authorities arrest the undocumented.

[img-narrow:/assets/16/0518/0120]“You should consider passing a resolution declaring New Jersey a sanctuary state and risk losing federal funds,” the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, a Highland Park pastor whose Interstate-RISE organization recently was approved as a refugee resettlement agency, urged the Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Reform and Federal Relations Committee. Kaper-Dale, who is running for governor under the banner of the Green Party, termed the Trump administration’s executive orders and policies regarding immigration “a planned and coordinated attack based on race and ethnicity.”

Five-city sweep

In a statement on enforcement actions in five cities across the country, including New York, during the second week of February, John Kelly, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, described 680 people arrested as “individuals who pose a threat to public safety, border security, or the integrity of our nation’s immigration system.” He characterized three-quarters as “criminal aliens,” which means about 170 people may have been guilty of nothing more than overstaying a visa.

Rumors of impending raids have engulfed various parts of the state in recent weeks.

“Where usually Dover is a very vibrant downtown and economy, at 7 pm, it was a ghost town” as hearsay swirled for a week that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was in Morris County, said Brian Lozano, a community organizer with the Wind in the Spirit immigration advocacy group in Morristown.

The Assembly committee held a special two-hour meeting to hear from those affected by the new administration’s effort to find and deport those in the United States without a valid visa or green card. They heard tales of mass fear, anxiety, and confusion among immigrants, many of whom have lived in New Jersey for more than a decade, have settled down with their families, and are working or going to school. These are law-abiding, productive members of society, according to advocates, who have become terrified at the news that the government is now targeting all undocumented, not just those with criminal convictions, for deportation.

Fifth-largest undocumented population

According to the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends project, New Jersey’s undocumented population numbers 500,000, the fifth-largest in the nation behind California, Texas, Florida, and New York. Nationally, an estimated 11.1 million people are believed to be undocumented, about 3.5 percent of all those living in the United States.

New Jersey’s undocumented are typically people who came to this country on visas — tourist, worker, student, or family member — and overstayed its terms. They include parents of children who were born here, business owners, and people unable to become citizens. The nation’s immigration laws are complex and the process for becoming a legal permanent resident can take years.

Giancarlo Tello, who was born in Lima, said his parents brought him to the United States in 1996 when he was six to escape the turmoil in Peru. They had hoped to become naturalized citizens, but the process took too long. He didn’t know he was undocumented until his sophomore year in high school, when he tried to get his driver’s license.

“We applied for and obtained a tourist visa with the intention of legalizing our status as soon as we could,” said Tello, who recently earned a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University and is working on a master’s at Rowan University. “My grandfather eventually did become a naturalized citizen and be able to petition for my parents. However, because of our backlogged immigration system, I turned over the age of 21 by the time that application was approved and I no longer qualify for that petition. Right now I am now undocumented.”

Immigrants are afraid because of a memo issued last week by John Kelly, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, stating that while criminals and those who “pose a risk to public safety or national security” should be priorities for deportation, immigration officers “have full authority to arrest or apprehend an alien whom an immigration officer has probable cause to believe is in violation of the immigration laws.” And except for limited cases, “the Department no longer will exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”

Moving decisively against undocumented

Diana Houenou, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the memo allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to “swiftly and aggressively round up and deport” any non-citizens here without a valid visa or green card. “There is no requirement for someone to have been convicted of a serious criminal offense to be subject to deportation … The Department of Homeland Security has made it clear everyone is going to be a target during this administration. They plan to physically remove people without a hearing.”

Tello, who is part of an organization that provides information and support to the undocumented, said that since the news of enhanced ICE enforcements broke, he has for the first time sought counseling and stayed in his apartment for several days, without going to class or otherwise outside “because of the fear of what’s going on out there.”

“I don’t know what sleep is … My anxiety is out of control,” said Daniela Velez, a Burlington County woman who fled turmoil in Venezuela as a child with her family. She said that because of their fears, her parents have made her “head of the household,” and transferred their apartment, car insurance, bank account, and younger sister’s tuition bill to her name because she is, at least temporarily, able to stay legally in the United States through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“I wake up every day and say bye to my parents and think I’m gonna come back and they’re not going to be home,” Velez said.

“All this anxiety is entirely appropriate,” said Shannon McKinnon, staff attorney with the American Friends Service Committee in Newark. “Our attorneys are challenged to provide advice while not stoking the fears.”

With this “aggressive enforcement regime,” McKinnon said immigration agents may well wind up arresting the parents of young children, so the attorneys are advising undocumented adults to have a plan for “who takes the custody of the children” in case they are deported.

Worse, advocates and legislators themselves told stories of immigrants being victimized or too afraid to report crimes.

Houenou said that recently in Orange, bystanders begged two men who happened upon a badly injured man not to call police because they feared he was undocumented and would be deported.

Assemblywoman Anjelica Jimenez (D-Hudson) said one waiter in her district, which has a large population of the undocumented, paid $1,000 to a man to help with his status only to have the man close up shop two weeks later.

Lozano said a transgender woman was recently assaulted in Dover but because she is undocumented she refused to go to the police for fear of detention.

Jimenez said the worries go beyond just immigrants and are affecting entire communities. Her district has a large population of the undocumented, she said, and several of her 11-year-old daughter’s classmates were absent recently because of their families’ fears of possible deportation.

“It’s fearful for my daughter, who is an American by all rights. She has an anxiety because of her classmates,” said Jimenez, who sat in on the hearing. “She asked me, ‘Mommy, if anything happens to Maria’s mom, do you think we could adopt her?’”

Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, another Hudson Democrat who attended the hearing, said her hometown of Hoboken has not officially declared itself a sanctuary city, but she wanted to assure city residents that officials “have enough on our plate” and would only contact ICE in a case involving a violent crime.

“Our police officers are not going to hunt you down just because the president of the United States put out his order,” said Chaparro, a sponsor of the bill to compensate sanctuary cities for lost federal aid. “If you run a red light, they are going to give you a warning and send you on your way. They are not going to call ICE. They are not going to have you deported.”

Not enough ICE for the job

DHS expects to hire an additional 10,000 agents to carry out its mission but, at least at the moment, does not have the personnel for a nationwide crackdown on undocumented immigrants, Houenou said. It “relies heavily on state and local police” for assistance. ICE currently has “287(g)” agreements with three New Jersey counties — Hudson, Monmouth and Salem — that essentially deputizes corrections or sheriff’s officers to perform immigration enforcement duties.

Houenou would like to stop that, and urged lawmakers to prohibit the “renting of jail beds to ICE.” Hudson County’s contract gives it $110 per day as payment for housing immigrant detainees. She urged legislators to “make sure New Jersey officers are not immigration officers” and refuse to provide manpower or even information to assist ICE in any raids or crackdowns of the undocumented.

“We should make it clear New Jersey will not use state and local resources to do the federal government’s job,” she said. “Our state needs to be proactive.”

Houenou said there is “no federal law requiring police to communicate with ICE about the immigration status of anyone.”

The Trump administration, however, has threatened to withhold federal funds from any community that declares itself a sanctuary. State lawmakers have introduced bills in both houses (S-3007/A-4590) to create a new grant program to provide funds to any county or municipality that has had its federal grant funding denied or reduced based upon its status as a sanctuary jurisdiction. Newark, Jersey City, East Orange, Maplewood, Plainfield, Princeton, Prospect Park, Union City, and Rutgers University are among the places in New Jersey that have declared themselves sanctuaries.

Houenou also said police should be prohibited from asking anyone his or her immigration status.

McKinnon echoed many of Houenou’s suggestions and made two others: the state should fund education and outreach efforts about potential naturalization scams and it should represent non-citizens who are facing deportation and cannot afford a lawyer.

While it’s not clear how New Jersey’s governor would react to any of these recommendations, or whether he would sign the legislation having the state compensate sanctuary cities for lost federal aid, Christie’s recent statements seem to indicate he would not be supportive.

In recent TV interviews, Christie has said New Jersey would be willing to partner with federal officials on an immigration crackdown and that the current enforcement effort is in part the result of past administrations’ inability to resolve problems with immigration for as long as 16 years.

“When that’s the case then the laws that are in effect right now have to be enforced,” Christie told Jake Tapper on the February 12 edition of CNN’s State of the Union.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) and chair of the federal relations committee, had a different opinion.

“I think the state has a duty to make sure the wellbeing of those in detention are taken care of, as well as potential people that could be lifted into turmoil by the executive order,” he said at the end of the hearing. “We will look into if we need to do something legislatively.”

Gusciora said he is particularly concerned about the future of Velez and others protected by DACA but who are now uncertain whether that program will continue to allow them to remain in the United States.

To Velez, what’s happening isn’t fair because there is no way for so many who want to become legal citizens of the United States to do so.

“Everyone wants to fight for citizenship,” she said. Her parents “thought there would be a concrete path for me to get legalization and there isn’t. I’m stuck. So is my sister.”