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

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 council 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.

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