Last week, the Atlantic County Commissioners unanimously approved an anti-immigrant resolution, which mirrors comments from other lawmakers across the state, including Governor Murphy, that discourage asylum seekers from coming to New Jersey. Though this most recent rhetoric conflicts with prior support for the immigrant community, the message is clear: few lawmakers are willing to follow their words with action. New Jersey must be fair and welcoming to all who call it home – not just when it's politically convenient, but always.

Instead of feeding into policies that tear communities apart, lawmakers must take immediate action to support immigrant New Jerseyans by passing the Values Act, which has languished in the New Jersey Legislature since it was first introduced almost two years ago.

The Values Act would draw a bright line between federal immigration enforcement and state and local agencies by ensuring that information pertaining to immigration status is only collected in limited circumstances, and that law enforcement collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) only occurs when mandated under federal law.

With each day of inaction, the consequences only grow. Instances of xenophobia and racism are on the rise in communities across the state. Months prior to the Atlantic County resolution, a Plainfield planning board member weaponized the threat of family separation and deportation against residents, repeatedly asking people – who were requesting increased affordable housing and eviction protections – if they were documented and “joking” to her colleagues that that they should call ICE and “let them run.”

Taken together with stagnant legislation, there comes a time when it is impossible to ignore the obvious: why have elected officials in New Jersey – one of the most diverse states in the country – failed to live up to their promises to support immigrant communities?

And there comes a time when it is impossible to ignore the racism that informs lawmakers’ harmful rhetoric and empty promises.

Anti-immigrant statements like those from the Atlantic County Commissioners and the Plainfield planning board member only stoke divisiveness in our state. This rhetoric continues to position immigrant community members and their families as others, even though nearly 1 in 4 New Jerseyans is an immigrant and 1 in 6 New Jerseyans have at least one immigrant family member. In sheer numbers alone, supporting immigrant communities means supporting New Jerseyans.

But beyond that, there are other repercussions that impact the day-to-day lives of immigrants in our state. Anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies engender mistrust in state and local government institutions. For far too many people, the worry that interacting with the government will lead to detention, deportation, and family separation already results in systems avoidance, where people are deterred from accessing resources for which they are eligible and that would help their family and community.

No one should have to worry that registering a child for school, going to a health clinic, reporting domestic violence, or filing a wage theft claim will result in state or local agencies sharing their information with federal immigration enforcement. Xenophobia from those in power only puts more lives at risk.

Passing the Values Act would ensure that state and local resources are used to support community priorities that increase access to opportunity for all residents and send a message that New Jersey government officials are here to serve all New Jerseyans, regardless of their immigration status. 

As we approach National Immigrants Day on October 28, and the end of the 2022-2023 legislative session, lawmakers must follow their words with action by passing and signing the Values Act into law. New Jersey has a rich immigrant heritage that we must protect to ensure that we are truly a fair and welcoming place for everyone who calls this state home.

This piece was originally published in USA TODAY Network New Jersey