Faith Leaders Ramp Up Anti-Lance Protests, Six Arrested for ‘Defiant Trespass’

Carly Sitrin | February 7, 2018 | Politics
Congressman’s alignment with Trump administration on immigration, other issues ignites dissenters — and challengers for the seat he has held for nine years

Faith leaders were arrested for protesting and standing for DACA inside Rep. Leonard Lance's office in Westfield.
Protesters are continuing to hound U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance’s office in Westfield, as feelings toward the Republican sour and challengers for his seat emerge. Lance has been the target of several phone campaigns, sit-ins, and town hall complaint sessions over the past few weeks as constituents voice their disapproval of the congressman’s policies — many of which align with those of the Trump administration.

Several faith leaders and clergy members were arrested Monday for protesting Lance’s support of legislation winding down or replacing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for immigrants in New Jersey. Lance, whose district includes Hunterdon County and parts of Essex, Morris, Somerset, Union, and Warren counties, was not present in the office at the time.

Sergeant Michael Walsh of the Westfield Police Department confirmed that six people were arrested during Monday’s sit-in protest at Lance’s Westfield district office: Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Temple B’nai Keshet in Montclair, Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, Rev. Ana Ralosky and Rev. John Rogers of First Congregational Church in Montclair, Nedia Morsy a resident of Hillside, and Kristen Peck of Maplewood. They were charged with “defiant trespass after refusing to leave the office of Leonard Lance after the office closed.” The six were released on Tuesday.

A ‘clean’ Dream Act

According to Faith in New Jersey, an advocacy group with which four of the six are affiliated, the protesters were urging Lance to pass a “clean” DREAM Act — legislation that would protect immigrants who were brought to the United States as children without proper documentation —ahead of the Feb. 8 deadline for a spending bill in Congress. A “clean” version would create a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers without funding things like a border wall, detention centers, and other bargaining chips that proponents say could harm immigrant communities.

“The people who were arrested yesterday were faith leaders who decided, this time they would not just chant and pray and stand in solidarity, but put their bodies on the line to show that they would stand with their undocumented sisters and brothers,” Archange Antoine, executive director of Faith in New Jersey, said of the protest. “It’s time for Congressman Lance to stand for the people in New Jersey,” he said.

Lance has publicly backed President Donald Trump’s decision to wind down the DACA program, which currently protects 22,000 residents across the state and — according to Faith in New Jersey — 4,000 in Lance’s district.

“Like many of my colleagues I agree that President Obama exceeded his Constitutional authority and disregarded existing law to implement his plan for undocumented immigrants,” Lance wrote in a September press release, adding, “President Trump has called on Congress to act, and rightfully so.”

An estimated 800,000 Dreamers work and live in the U.S. under the DACA program.

Primary opponent

In response to the protest, John Byers, a spokesman for Lance’s office, said in an email that “Congressman Lance has great respect for our state clergy and is happy to meet with the congregation at a time that is mutually convenient for both parties as he has done with other religious leaders and groups on numerous occasions.”

Lance’s district — the 7th — is one that Democrats think they might be able to flip in the next election. So far, he’s facing not only seven Democratic challengers — most of whom are well funded and connected — but also primary opponent Lindsay Christine Brown, a progressive Republican who is believed to have a viable shot at the seat.

While Antoine said that Monday’s protest was geared toward protecting Dreamers from changes to federal law and refuting negative immigrant stereotypes, he also took issue with several of Lance’s policy points.

Lance is co-sponsoring H.R. 1468, the “Recognizing America’s Children (RAC) Act,” a bill popular with Republicans that would give a path to citizenship to those who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, who arrived before the age of 16, have no criminal record and who meet certain educational requirements. The path would start with a “conditional” permanent residency, move to a green card after five years, and eventually end in permanent citizenship. One sticking point with this bill is the government retains the right to remove someone’s legal status if they are not working or in school.

Lance, along with U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), is also a member of the so-called Problem Solvers Caucus — the same bipartisan group of 48 lawmakers in the House that attempted to solve the Affordable Care Act breakdown last year.

Problem solver?

The Problem Solvers released their proposed solution for DACA on Jan. 29, 2018; it had Lance’s support and would be included in the budget deal that’s been stalled in Washington as the immigration debate rages on.

Similar to the RAC Act, it would include a pathway to citizenship that would take from 10 to 12 years for those who entered the U.S. by June 15, 2012 and have clean criminal and tax records.

Because this proposal retains many of the president’s core talking points, it is believed by some in Congress to have a better chance than previous bipartisan attempts that were struck down by the Trump administration. It calls for an appropriation of $1.591 billion for Trump’s border wall, and another $1.123 for “Non-Barrier infrastructure” including border surveillance technology and equipment and border patrol agent relocations and retention programs.

The plan would eliminate the much-maligned Diversity Visa Lottery and reallocate half of the annual visas to those coming from “priority countries” that are underrepresented; instead there would be a new merit-based preference for individual visa applicants. That new system would take into consideration formal education, employment and entrepreneurship, civic involvement, English language mastery, and the country’s workforce needs.

It would also address the GOP’s fear of “chain migration ”— that enables family members to sponsor relatives to join them in the U.S. — by preventing undocumented individuals from sponsoring their parents after they achieved citizenship. It would, however, grant those relatives a three-year legal work permit to remain in the country.

State level

On the state level, Gov. Phil Murphy recently announced the creation of the Office of Immigrant Protection and Defense, a new state agency to assist Dreamers if the federal government ends protections allowing them to remain in the country.

State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has also asserted that New Jersey will support DACA recipients and has entered the state into a multistate lawsuit opposing the Trump administration’s decision to end the program on March 5.