December 24, 2014

Police Officer Goes the Extra Mile For Princeton’s Immigrant Community

Police Officer Jorge A. Narvaez leads the Princeton Police Department's efforts to reach out to immigrant community.

Police Officer Jorge A. Narvaez leads the Princeton Police Department’s efforts to reach out to immigrant community.

When President Obama announced his executive action on immigration policy November 20, offering temporary legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, Princeton Police Officer Jorge A. Narvaez knew it wouldn’t be long before scam artists would spring into action.

The town’s growing Hispanic community, many of whom are undocumented, would likely be the target of criminals offering phony immigration help for a price. Mr. Narvaez, who has been key in the police department’s recent efforts to reach out to that community, got to work. With the help of the town’s human services department, he organized an information session at St. Paul’s Church. Three attorneys — two bilingual and one with a workable command of the Spanish language — participated, making a presentation and then taking individual questions.

“Over 150 people attended. It was very rainy that night, or we would have had more,” Mr. Narvaez said of the December 1 event. “Next year, we’ll do more sessions, with four topics, and we’ll do one every month on immigration. Hopefully, we can bring attorneys to each one.”

The turnout at the church, of which many Hispanic residents are members of the congregation, marked a major reversal from the summer of 2013. It was then that the police department did a survey aimed at gauging residents’ safety needs, and got zero response from the Spanish-speaking community. Since then, Mr. Narvaez and Detective Annette Henderson have been leading the efforts to let residents fearful of immigration enforcement know that the police force wants to address their everyday safety concerns.

“It’s difficult for the undocumented,” said Mr. Narvaez, who came to this country from Nicaragua when he was 17. “People were afraid. After the survey, Detective Henderson met with me and I said, instead of having people come to the police station to meet, let’s go to the church. So, with the Crisis Ministry and the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Father Miguel Valle from the church, and others, we knew we could gauge concerns in the community. We got a little of the cold shoulder in the beginning. They wanted to know why we were reaching out to them. Once I told them my background, it was okay.”

Mr. Narvaez first lived in Florida after leaving Nicaragua, but he knew if he stayed there within the Spanish-speaking community, he would never learn English. After a move north to Plainfield, he took classes at Rutgers University. Mr. Narvaez worked as a security guard at Dow Jones in South Brunswick. He joined the New Jersey Air National Guard, where he has served for 22 years and is a Master Sergeant with the 108th Security Forces Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base. It was there that he met retired police officers.

“I always knew I wanted to make a difference,” Mr. Narvaez said. “I talked to them about the work they had done. In 1994, there was an opening in Princeton Township for a bilingual person at the communications center. I got the job, and I have been with the department ever since.”

For Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter, Mr. Narvaez’s efforts have been of immeasurable help. “He’s a very special officer,” Mr. Sutter said. “He’s really invested and knowledgeable about all the issues that affect the different populations in our community, especially immigration. He came to me early on and asked me if I was okay with him becoming involved in issues concerning the immigrant community. I was absolutely ecstatic. It’s what we want from our officers. It comes from the heart.”

Mr. Sutter is “in awe” watching Mr. Narvaez in action. “It’s not just the organized meetings that he does. He’s doing all types of things we don’t even know about on a day-to-day basis with individuals, whether it be advice, or getting in touch with services,” Mr. Sutter said. “Those are the things that really signify to me the community policing philosophy and the investment that he makes.”

Councilwoman Heather Howard, who serves as Princeton’s Police Commissioner, is another fan of Mr. Narvaez. “I’ve been impressed with the depth of his relationships in the community, with how many people he knows,” she said. “He’s an example of how it benefits everyone in town and increases trust, especially these days when there is a lot of reflection about tragedies relating to police/community interaction across the country.”

Two years ago, when there was an unannounced ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raid on Princeton, Mr. Narvaez made an effort to explain to the community what was happening, Ms. Howard said. She also praised his quick action regarding the recent immigration action by President Obama. “You need these collaborations,” she said. “The police aren’t necessarily going to bring in the immigration experts. He thought it was important that we spoke to the congregation of St. Paul’s letting them know they wouldn’t be victimized by scams.”

Mr. Narvaez is modest and quick to credit partnerships with other individuals and organizations for the success of outreach efforts. But he is clearly proud of what has been accomplished. “We see an increase in people coming to tell us about wage theft, which has been a problem, along with other issues. To me, that’s positive. They weren’t coming before. Now they know we are here to help.”