Immigration Rights Advocates Set Agenda, Hope for Allies

By David Cruz

With just weeks to go before the state’s gubernatorial primary, advocates for immigrants’ rights gathered at the State House Annex to punctuate the policy points in their agenda, with the hopes that this blue state will return a Democrat to the governor’s office.

“We are here to make sure that our political parties and the elected officials are ready to prioritize the issues that are affecting our communities,” declared Johanna Calle of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.

Like extending driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants, a boost for safety and security on the roads, say advocates, and more than $200 million in insurance premiums and fees, on top of the half billion in other state taxes.

“It’s not just about finances, not just supporting our state and our taxes and making sure that families are supported, but it’s also creating safety between our law enforcement and our families that need the most,” added Archange Antoine, executive director of Faith in New Jersey.

It’s that relationship, between police and immigrant communities that is being most tested by the hardening of policies. With the federal government increasing enforcement efforts, residents — authorized and otherwise — are showing a hesitance to help police.

“I can tell you that we have seen a dramatic increase in the arrest and detention of immigrants in New Jersey,” reported Serges Demefack, coordinator of the End Detention and Deportation Project with the American Friends Service Committee. “We’ve seen people picked up because they were taking a smoke break next to the courthouse or just because they’re waiting for a bus.”

Agenda items also include a $15 minimum wage, protection against wage theft, access to Medicaid and financial aid for so-called DREAMers, the children of the unauthorized. These items are closely in line with the platforms of the Democrats running for governor, but on the other side, not so much. Neither Kim Guadagno or Jack Ciattarelli has shown any inclination towards any of these items, like Ciatarelli, who in a debate last week said, “I believe what we have seen here in New Jersey over the past year with 13 cities declaring themselves sanctuary cities is the worst possible thing at the worst possible time.”

And Guadagno, who at the same debate said, “If you commit a crime in New Jersey, you should go to jail, and especially if you’ve committed a crime as an illegal immigrant.”

Calle responds with optimism. “I think a lot of folks thought that the election was going to make people less willing to work on these issues and more scared. And the reality is that it really has emboldened elected officials to see that it’s time for them to act and we can’t wait on Washington to do anything,” she said.

Like much of the progressive agenda in this state, the hope for the immigration rights plank is riding on the back of what advocates hope will be an ally. But, if you add that to promises of full education and pension funding, tax reform and health care expansion, the next governor (if they are from the left) is going to have a pocket full of IOUs and a fiscal crisis that makes paying them back a heavy lift, indeed.