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Immigration Issues Are Debated

Candace Braun

Why immigrants have been recent targets of raids in Mercer County, whether or not immigrants should become legal U.S. citizens, and the impact that illegal immigrants have on their offspring, were some of the many topics discussed on Monday at the Princeton Public Library during a forum that examined the local and national effects of U.S. policies on immigration.

Presented in conjunction with the Princeton Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF), the forum featured a panel discussion by various local experts on immigration.

"It's not clear why Mercer County is being targeted," said Maria Juega, chair of LALDEF, who introduced the event to the more than 100 Princeton area residents in attendance. In recent months immigration raids have increased all over the county, including Princeton, where eight men were taken away in handcuffs last fall, and one man was taken from his place of employment at the Princeton Shopping Center just last month.

Ms. Juega said that immigrants are "pawns of bad public policy," and that the government has chosen to "demonize immigrants rather than deal with the economic problems of the nation."

New Jersey has the fifth highest immigration population in the country, said Ms. Juega. Latinos account for 10 percent of the Mercer County population, and five percent of the state population.

According to Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology and public and international affairs at Princeton University, one of the largest problems with immigration is what experts know, and what they think they know.

Advocating for immigrants to obtain legal status, he pointed out that during an immigration legalization program in the late 1980s, illegal immigration was at an all-time low of 2 million people. Today, that number stands at 10 million.

"This is an unfolding economic tragedy ... and it's largely a tragedy of our own making," said Mr. Massey.

Calling Mexico our country's closest trading partner, he said that a 1994 treaty between the U.S. and Mexico encouraged the trading of goods between the two countries, which encouraged more immigrants to come here for work. However, within the last 22 years, border patrol officers have increased from 2,000 to 12,000.

"We have embarked on a major movement of enforcement and oppression," he said.

But despite these efforts, there have not been significant declines in the number of immigrants entering the country, said Mr. Massey: "It doesn't deter people from entering, it deters them from leaving once they get here.... What has changed dramatically is the outflow [of immigrants]."

Mexicans currently account for approximately 75 percent of our country's immigrants, he added.

Children of Immigrants

Another issue that was discussed by panelists was the impact that immigration has on the children of those who enter the country. Approximately three million undocumented minors live in the U.S., said Mr. Massey.

"Their only crime is obeying their parents ... but they can be deported at any time at the will of our government," he said.

Betsy Stokes, a bilingual teacher at Princeton High School, asked what can be done to allow her immigrant students to apply for financial aid for college, or even to apply for college at all.

Attorney Ryan Stark Lilienthal, a former Borough Councilman and local advocate for immigration rights, said that there are two federal legislation acts in progress that could give students the ability to obtain permanent resident status; however, there is no current solution to the problem.

This is a serious concern, as students who know they can't receive an education beyond high school tend to lose their ambition, he said. Finding a way to fund these students' college education would be most beneficial: "The costs are minimal ... and the results are numerous."

Illegal immigration is a concern to both the immigrants and to those around them, as several issues come into play, said Linda Bosniak, a Rutgers University law professor. For immigrants, the primary concern is getting caught by local enforcement officials, which is why they avoid the law, even during times of danger. Not making a call to the fire department or police when there is an emergency can be dangerous to that individual, as well as others who are involved, she said.

In addition, many immigrants are fearful of having their legal status reported to the government by an employer or landlord, and therefore keep silent in an abusive situation that could become dangerous, said Ms. Bosniak: "They are especially vulnerable to an abuse of power."

Recent events in Princeton reflect that, as there were several reports of black-against-Hispanic violence in the Borough last fall, and both victims and witnesses were afraid to come forward because they didn't want to give police their personal information, said Mr. Lilienthal: "We've seen quite tragically in Princeton the fear [immigrants] have of local law enforcement."

With encouragement from Mr. Lilienthal, Borough Council passed a resolution last November that assures area immigrants that police will not ask questions relating to the immigrant's legal status.

Currently, Council is waiting to hear from the state attorney general on an ordinance that would stop all local police interference in immigration raids, said Councilman David Goldfarb.

The Princeton Public Library announced that it will host an "Ask a Lawyer" program on April 4, from 7 to 9 p.m., inviting area residents to drop in and ask local attorneys legal questions, on immigration or other related issues. It will be the first in a series of outreach programs for area immigrants, said Library Director Leslie Burger.

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