May 31, 2017

Immigration Meeting Draws Large Turnout

“Immigrants Are Welcome Here” read the sign at the Nassau Street Presbyterian Church, as last Wednesday’s meeting on immigration issues echoed that sentiment and a range of related themes.

In the current climate of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids and arrests in several states and widespread fears and rumors, the meeting at Nassau Presbyterian Church last week included about 130 local leaders, business owners, academics, and other supporters of the work of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF).

Emphasizing the urgency of the situation, LALDEF Chair Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, Princeton University sociology professor and emcee for the occasion, noted that undocumented immigrants are being harshly targeted by the current administration. “It’s not just about the population of paperless people,” she said. “It’s about the country, what we stand for, a sense of decency and inclusiveness.”

She continued, “These are women who worry about the fate of their children in case they are detained and deported; sons and daughters reluctant to attend school for fear that their parents won’t be there when they return home; and small business owners who have contributed to our nation’s economy, but who might have to forego ambitions and go deeper into the shadows.”

Ms. Fernandez-Kelly described Wednesday’s meeting as “an extraordinary event, making a statement about decency, fair play, and devotion to American values.”

Lead speaker Alejandro Portes, Princeton University sociology professor emeritus, noted that “to deport such people is legal but also inhumane.”

In his remarks titled “Immigrants in the Age of Mass Deportations,” Mr. Portes pointed out that the population being targeted came to this country in response to labor demands here, “not just because they wanted to, but because they were wanted. It is a population of innocents, whose only crime was to respond to a labor demand on this side of the border.”

He added that the children of these immigrants are even more innocent. “The policy of massive deportation,” he continued,“ disregards the significant contributions made by this population and the serious human suffering in uprooting families and sending them to a country that many barely remember and their children do not even know.”
Emphasizing troubling issues of morality and human rights, Mr. Portes accused the federal government of “sacrificing the moral standing of this country that took so many generations and so many lives to build.  That standing is being seriously compromised, and those of us who still believe in that moral standing for America have the responsibility of standing up to the present government and these people.  This is what we have to do — not for legal reasons, but for moral ones, for the self-respect and dignity of the country.”

Several other speakers presented poignant stories of experiences as undocumented immigrants struggling to regularize their presence in the country, and three LALDEF leaders followed up with appeals to the audience for support, financial and personal, in their ongoing work with immigrants.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta, assistant professor of classics at Princeton University and author of Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, is originally from the Dominican Republic.  He described 17 years of seeking to normalize his situation under extremely difficult conditions.

Marisol Conde-Hernandez, “a daughter of Princeton,” told how she came here from Mexico with her undocumented parents at an early age and worked her way through Mercer County Community College and Rutgers University with the help of LALDEF and other organizations.  Last week she received her law degree from Rutgers.

Steve Puac, who arrived in the U.S. at the age of 12 and will be attending Haverford College in the fall, described his experience in LALDEF’s FUTURO Program, which provides immigrant high school students with the financial and human support necessary for successful transition to college.

Two other young women, whose names were not revealed, told more troubling stories of their continuing struggles to achieve an education and regular immigration status, and their help from LALDEF.

“LALDEF offers care and encouragement to people like these exceptional new Americans whose faith and endurance give the lie to characterizations of immigrants as ‘law breakers,’” Ms. Fernandez-Kelly said.  “Instead they are vulnerable people seeking lives worth living.  We are proud to join hands with them.”

Other speakers representing LALDEF included Executive Director Adriana Abizadeh, who described the booming demand for services in the six months since the presidential election, and the need for new office space and larger staff to accommodate the needs of immigrants currently seeking assistance; LALDEF Board Member Leticia Fraga, who described the community ID card as an essential means to give people without other forms of identification a way to interact with local institutions and to be protected in emergencies; and LALDEF Executive Committee and Board Member Anastasia Mann, who emphasized the dire needs of LALDEF at this time and the importance of the community’s moral and financial support.

Since 2004, LALDEF  has provided services to Latinos in Mercer County, including legal referrals, community ID cards, English-as-a-Second-Language classes, tax consultations, and educational assistance.