North Jersey residents are reacting with a mix of apprehension and measured enthusiasm for orders that the Department of Homeland Security issued Tuesday codifying President Trump’s plan to increase immigration enforcement.
The orders represent a sharp break from the immigration policies pursued by the Obama administration, which prioritized for deportation undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes. The memos instruct Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to identify, capture and quickly deport every undocumented immigrant they encounter.
Johanna Calle, program coordinator for the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said communities have been bracing for new enforcement actions since Trump took office, and some are living in fear.
“People are much more cautious,” she said. “They are much less likely to call police if they think police will call ICE agents.”
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She worried, too, about a rise in racial profiling as law enforcement seeks to root out undocumented immigrants, and the potential to erode trust among neighbors.
“Are they going to go into communities that are mostly immigrant?” she said. “Are they going to stop anyone who looks like they might be undocumented? This is going to end up causing an issue of communities turning on themselves, afraid of neighbors and who is going to deport them.”
Milton Jovel, an immigrant with a worker’s visa, said people were “scared to talk.”
Jovel sat in a grocery store in Waldwick with a group of four men discussing the news about increased immigration enforcement. He said he was one of only two employees who showed up to work during a protest last week called “A Day Without Immigrants,” when workers skipped work and businesses shuttered in protest of the Trump administration’s policies.
“I feel safer not participating, keeping my head low and going to work – especially now,” Jovel said.
Others, however, welcomed the move as a way of preserving jobs for citizens and immigrants who played by the rules.
“I feel it’s a good thing because a lot of jobs — construction — a lot of these people hang out by Home Depot taking away American jobs,” said Mike DeJesus, a 60-year resident of Paterson who was born in Puerto Rico, referring to day laborers who congregate by home-improvement stores to look for work. “I feel he’s doing the right thing. A lot of people are here illegally. If they have a work visa I have no problem with that.”
Sharon Becote, a lifelong Paterson resident, said, “If you are here, take care of the paperwork to stay here legally. We don’t want to kick you out, but do what’s necessary to become a legal citizen.
“I do agree with what he’s doing,” Becote said.
Dimas Blanco, owner of Mi Gente Café on Main Street in Paterson, who lives in West New York, said people are scared to go out.
“We feel it, the small businesses,” he said. “My neighbor doesn’t go out anymore.”
But Blanco said he can sympathize with the point of view that some people don’t pay taxes but get the benefits of living in the U.S.
“I understand the point from American people, but it’s not just Spanish,” he said. “Some people get so many benefits. We pay taxes and we are tired of that.”
The full impact of the orders remain to be seen, but advocates said they expected a rise in immigration raids at homes and at workplaces and for local police to take on a greater role in enforcement.
Sara Cullinane, executive director of Make the Road New Jersey, an immigration rights group, noted that police in Elizabeth accompanied ICE agents during a raid Friday targeting the owner of the business, a woman who has lived in the U.S. for more than decade.
“With a policy like this, anyone is at risk,” said Cullinane, an attorney, saying it raises constitutional problems including possible racial profiling and lack of due process.
Cullinane, an attorney, said the order strips away “prosecutorial discretion” — or the power that ICE officers had to discontinue working on a deportation case. “Broad categories of people used to be eligible for release from deportation and it takes that away,” she said.
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Ada Lil Torres, a Hackensack lawyer who specializes in immigration and nationality law, said a lot of people are worried.
“Now they’re interested in applying for citizenship,” she said, “and ensuring that their rights, whatever rights they do have, are not infringed upon.
“I’ve had to calm a few people down.”
She said there are a lot of gray areas with the new orders.
“I don’t know when this will all actually be implemented,” she said. “Technically, if an immigration officer comes upon someone that is not here legally, they can’t just turn a blind eye.”
When asked if this could affect those applying for permanent residency, Torres said, “I certainly hope that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn’t detain people that are going in for fingerprinting. I hope they don’t arrest them because they’re in the process of adjusting their status.”
Looking for work
Near Broad Avenue on the border of Palisades Park and Ridgefield, day laborers and undocumented immigrants congregated Tuesday in the predominately Guatemalan area looking for construction jobs.
Nick Silvera, 35, arrived from Uruguay illegally in 1989.
“Let’s just say I no longer wear work boots,” Silvera joked. “I wear Nikes just in case I have to run.”
Silvera said he has lived in the country since he was 7 years old and said he knows nothing about his homeland. He has grown up, worked and raised two young daughters in this country. For him, these new orders threaten the life he has built and erased all hope.
“He’s wrong,” Silvera said. “He’s misjudging everybody.”
Silvera said that there are two types of undocumented immigrants: There were those who commit crimes, and those who pay taxes and work to build the country.
“Just because there are two types of immigrants, doesn’t mean they’re the same,” Silvera said.
Many proponents of Trump’s policies assure the immigrant population that only those without documentation need worry. But for people like Freddy Calo, 19, a restaurant worker in Hackensack, the worry centers on their friends and family who are undocumented.
“It doesn’t feel good,”Calo said. “But one can only hope everything goes alright.”
Kenny, who came from Guatemala illegally 22 years ago and refused to give his last name, said the orders are rooted in ignorance.
“What’s happening doesn’t make sense to me,” Kenny said. “We’re all immigrants.”
Jorge Alvarez and Angel Sifuentes, both of Bergenfield, have worked as day laborers for well over three years. They were standing on the corner of Columbia Avenue and Addon Road on Tuesday waiting to get a chance to be offered work.
“If we are the robbers and criminals like he says we are, we wouldn’t be here looking for work,” said Jorge Alvarez, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Bergenfield, of Trump. “We shouldn’t have to worry about getting arrested. We’re not doing anything bad, we’re looking for work.”
Sifuentes said he has three kids and his wife waiting for him in his home country of Guatemala. For years, he said, he has been trying to earn enough money to have his family join him.
“I think with everything that’s happening now, it’s more likely that I’ll return there, then send them to live here,” Sifuentes said. “We’re here to work hard and for a better life for our family. If that isn’t possible here, then where?”
“But I still believe in the power of the people. When a president doesn’t do a good job, the people have a say on whether he stays or goes, right?” Sifuentes said.