New Jersey communities are bracing for a crackdown on illegal immigration, now that the Department of Homeland Security has instructed its agents to go more aggressively after immigrants who are in the U.S. without authorization.
Among those who are undocumented or have relatives in that situation, fear is running high, and some are skipping work and canceling appointments to avoid detection. But some New Jersey residents welcomed the federal action, saying the U.S. has failed for too long to deal with illegal immigration, that they believe siphons American jobs and resources.
“‘We’re going to enforce the laws’ – that’s really what they’re saying,” says Ada Lil Torres, a Hackensack-based immigration lawyer, talking about the order. “People that are here without authorization are worried, normally. Everyone is worried when someone comes knocking at the door.”
President Donald Trump’s plan to increase immigration enforcement marks a departure from the policies pursued by the Obama administration, which prioritized for deportation undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes.
Now agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been instructed to capture and quickly deport every undocumented immigrant they encounter.
The full impact of the order remains to be seen, but advocates say they foresee a rise in immigration raids at homes and at workplaces, and expect local police to take on a greater role in enforcement.
“With a policy like this, anyone is at risk,” says Sara Cullinane, executive director of Make the Road New Jersey, an immigration-rights group.
Cullinane, a lawyer, says the order strips away “prosecutorial discretion” – or the power that ICE officers had to stop work on a deportation case.
“Broad categories of people used to be eligible for release from deportation, and it takes that away,” she says.
Advocates express concern that local police will be drawn into immigration enforcement, which they say would damage trust between police and immigrants.
“People are much more cautious,” says Johanna Calle, program coordinator for the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “They are much less likely to call police if they think police will call ICE agents.”
Torres, the lawyer in Hackensack, says she has received worried calls from clients, but that there are a lot of gray areas with the new orders.
“I don’t know when this will all actually be implemented,” she says. “Technically, if an immigration officer comes upon someone that is not here legally, they can’t just turn a blind eye.”
Support for immigration crackdown
U.S. immigration policy has been a hotbed of political debate and controversy for decades as presidential administrations have grappled with what to do about the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the country. The Obama administration deported more people than any other administration in history but focused largely on criminals. Many Americans support wider action against those who came to the U.S. illegally, believing they should face consequences for having broken immigration laws.
“You have more people coming here illegally not even to work, but just to take advantage of our benefits,” says Johannes Payero, 34, who came to the U.S. legally from the Dominican Republican more than 20 years ago.
“They don’t want to invest here, but they send money back home. There are a lot of people who don’t want to hear this, but it’s true. People just come here to take what they can and leave.”
Payero was voicing a common complaint. However, undocumented immigrants do not qualify for welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and most other public benefits under federal law.
Mike DeJesus, a 60-year resident of Paterson who was born in Puerto Rico, says tougher action is needed to preserve jobs for citizens and immigrants who have 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,” he says, referring to day laborers who congregate near 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, also says President Trump is doing the right thing.
“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.”
She adds: “I do agree with what he’s doing.”
Looking for work
Still others worry about the potential for mass deportations, saying it would tear families apart and hurt livelihoods. Passaic’s acting mayor, Hector Lora, says the community is already on edge after false accounts of ICE raids in the area had been circulating on social media.
One graduate of the Passaic County Technical Institute admits that he and his family had been hiding in the basement of their Passaic home after reading that federal agents were traveling door to door in the city, Lora says.
Lora has also heard from the Passaic County Women, Infants and Children benefits office, or WIC, that mothers in the area were calling to say they were afraid to come in to receive services, for fear that federal offices were being staked out by immigration agents. Community members told Lora they had similar fears about letting lead or fire inspectors into their homes.
“It’s not pragmatic, as far as elevating safety and security,” Lora says of the president’s immigration policy. “It’s causing problems, even panic.”
Near Broad Avenue, on the border of Palisades Park and Ridgefield, day laborers and undocumented immigrants congregated Tuesday looking for construction jobs.
“Let’s just say I no longer wear work boots,” said Nick Silvera, 35, who came from Uruguay illegally in 1989. “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 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 erase all hope.
“He’s wrong,” Silvera said. “He’s misjudging everybody.”
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 friends and family who are undocumented.
“It doesn’t feel good,” Calo says. “But one can only hope everything goes all right.”
Kenny, who came from Guatemala illegally 22 years ago and refused to give his last name, says the orders are rooted in ignorance.
“What’s happening doesn’t make sense to me,” Kenny says. “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,” Alvarez, a Mexican immigrant, said 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 a 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?”
Staff Writers Nicholas Katzban and Catherine Carrera contributed to this report.