Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Immigration debate heats up Central Jersey

A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post ran an article on how some cities are adopting a don't-ask policy on immigration status. Residents can access city services, including calling the police, without fear of immigration status questions or problems. The small central Jersey borough of Hightstown was a frame for this story:
In the aftermath of a series of raids in 2004, the town council in this historic borough of 5,300 -- transformed in recent years by an influx of at least 1,300 Latin Americans -- unanimously approved a sort of immigrant bill of rights.
Joining a growing list of cities enacting a no-questions-asked policy on immigration status, Hightstown now allows its undocumented residents to officially interact with local police and access city services without fear of being reported to federal authorities.
It has opened new lines of communication here, officials say. One illegal immigrant at the complex where the raids were staged called on the police recently to help place a family member in alcohol rehabilitation; others have reported domestic abuse, extortion, theft and other crimes. Some are calling the town's pro-immigrant mayor for advice on City Hall weddings and landlord troubles. Hightstown has
added services aimed at immigrants, including free bilingual computer classes last month. Noting the shift, one Spanish-language newspaper recently dubbed Hightstown the "Paradise Town" of New Jersey.

The backlash was swift.

From the Windsor-Hights Herald, the local paper to Hightstown:
That includes, among dozens of e-mails, one with the headshots of Mayor Bob Patten and the members of the Borough Council, calling them "deranged and dangerous" and asking readers to report their activity to federal immigration officials.
"One wonders ... how your elected officials can uphold their oath when they disregard enforcement of immigration laws," reads one e-mail from a writer who said he learned of the story from MSNBC," read one e-mail. (sic) "It seems that you have taken the less responsible path and in so doing have created a safe house for everyone who sneaks into this country for whatever reason, including terrorism."

Intermixed with the notes calling Hightstown a city of criminals which should declare itself an independent country free of US law, however, came emails and calls in support of Hightstown's policies, including from people wishing they had similar policies in their states.

The resolution didn't really change much about how borough police business was handled:

The Borough Council in March 2005 unanimously approved a resolution committing the borough to restoring trust and confidence Latinos have in borough police while taking ICE officials to task for allegedly identifying themselves as police officers during a raid. It specifically states that immigrants should have the "confidence to contact and interact with local police without fear of immigration consequences."
"When we passed that resolution, it did a fabulous job in letting the members of our community know that they would be treated fairly and justly and equally," the mayor said this week. "It created confidence that they can interact with police and interact with our government they can report crime."
Police Chief James Eufemia said this week that the resolution served to educate members of the Hispanic community that their citizenship was never an issue when they needed police. But he acknowledged, "That was their biggest fear."
"As a matter of course, we didn't do that prior to the resolution or after the resolution," he said. Citizenship issues can become part of the process if someone arrested can't produce identification, he explained.

Without such a policy, the illegal population were often successfully targeted as victims by criminals. Crimes went unreported and predators remained free of prosecution. If people know the authorities will help them and not treat them as criminals, they're more likely to report thefts and violent crimes. The police can do their jobs and pursue the truly dangerous.

The face of the town has changed somewhat in the last ten years: there are more Hispanic-themed businesses & restaurants, more places where Spanish is spoken, more classes at the library and local churches for English as a Second Language. None of this is a negative to me; I'm happy and proud to be in a community which cares for its own, no matter where they came from. I'm not alone in that, but it's pretty clear that there are two sides to this story, even in a heavily-Democratic little Central Jersey town.

(cross-posted at Blue Jersey)

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