June 12, 2019

Immigrants’ Needs, Concerns, and Ways to Help Highlight PCDO Forum

By Donald Gilpin

National and international events and policy decisions may be happening far away in Washington, D.C., or Central America, but those happenings and that news can reverberate strongly in Princeton, particularly on the issue of immigration and the lives of immigrants.

“Immigration in Princeton: Community Needs and Current Policy Issues,” a panel discussion presented last Sunday by the Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO), provided an overview of the needs of immigrants in Princeton, along with some personal stories and local, state, and federal policy solutions. The speakers offered a number of ways for volunteers to help.

“This is a welcoming community, yet people are frightened,” said panelist and Princeton Councilwoman Leticia Fraga. Emphasizing the importance of befriending immigrant neighbors, she urged, “Don’t assume that you know what they need. Ask how you can help.”

Fraga, who is the Princeton Council liaison to Princeton Human Services and the Civil Rights Commission and the Public Safety Committee representative (Police Commissioner), pointed out, “There are individuals in our communities who are going through nightmares that we are not aware of. We don’t know what it took for them to get here, why they’re here, or what they’re experiencing.”

The panelists discussed their work with immigrants and told a number of the immigrants’ personal stories, but, stated panel moderator Liz Cohen, “They’re not here to tell their own stories because it’s too risky. It’s a scary time.”

Fraga described a Princeton Police Department (PPD) under Chief Nick Sutter that is dedicated to building trust and cooperation with all residents, promoting communication with police officers without the fear of being asked about immigration status. Princeton, she said, follows the New Jersey State Attorney General’s (AG) directive regarding contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in only those specific cases mandated by the AG. The PPD also will not participate in ICE raids.

Noting that the AG issued directives for the whole state in November 2018 similar to what Princeton had already adopted, Fraga added that PPD has been very fair and responsive to requests and inquiries regarding racial profiling and other concerns.

“Considering what we have accomplished so far, I am very hopeful,” she said.

Panelist John Heilner, co-founder and chair of the Princeton Human Services Immigration Committee and a board member of the Latin American Legal and Defense Education Fund (LALDEF), emphasized that “in the last 18 months with the new administration in Washington, people’s fear has risen hugely.”

He noted a number of issues involving immigrants locally and described initiatives that LALDEF, Human Services, and other organizations are taking to address those issues. He mentioned a “Know Your Rights” campaign to inform citizens and non-citizens that they have rights and cannot be subjected to searches or seizures without due process; problems with wage theft in Princeton that the PPD, along with LALDEF and Human Services, has been addressing with some success; ID cards, more than 13,000 issued since 2009; LALDEF’s Futuro Program to prepare high school students in Trenton and Princeton for college; LALDEF’s legal services to assist immigrants; and LALDEF’s ESL classes.

Heilner noted that most of these initiatives are run by volunteers, and there are many ways for interested individuals to help by contacting LALDEF at laldef.org.

Panelist Diane Paulsell, vice president of Cristosol, a regional rights organization in Central America, spoke directly about the “humanitarian crisis on our southern border;” violence in the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras; and the consequences locally.

She noted that President Trump’s recent decision to end assistance to countries of the Northern Triangle is exacerbating the problem, and the impact is being felt in the Princeton Public Schools, where there are children who came to the country as unaccompanied minors and a number of children whose parents have been deported or are in deportation proceedings.

She emphasized — in Princeton as well as on the southern border — the stresses of monitoring, detentions, deportation, and family separation.

On a positive note, Fraga, in promoting community building, invited people to a Loteria, a popular Mexican game of chance, like bingo, at the Princeton Art Museum this Saturday, June 15. Also at the Museum, through July 7, is “Miracles on the Border,” an exhibition of folk art from Mexico.