After his child was born, Mr. Mejia, who had lived in New Jersey for almost 20 years, enrolled his son in the state’s insurance program. He had no idea that the simple act of getting his son health insurance would lead to unimaginable trauma for him and his family.
A few days after his visit to the agency, Mr. Mejia’s wife was experiencing complications related to her Cesarean section – a severe infection of her surgical incision – and needed to go to the emergency room. Unbeknownst to them, an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) van was monitoring their house and agents arrived to detain them as soon as they left their home.
The tip that resulted in Mr. Mejia’s detention came from an employee of the agency overseeing the state insurance applications.
Though Ms. Mejia showed her serious infection to the ICE officers, Mr. Mejia was detained by ICE and his wife was not permitted to go to the hospital until he was released. While she waited at home, unable to access much-needed medical care, Ms. Mejia feared that she might not see her husband again and that her son might lose his father.
During this time of crisis, when nothing mattered more than getting Ms. Mejia to the hospital, the family was forced to contend with the threat of more serious health complications and family separation. Though Mr. Mejia was eventually released by ICE and he and his wife went to the ER, the trauma that their family suffered cannot be undone.
Mr. Mejia still reports to ICE at least twice a year. With each visit to the ICE Field Office, the question of whether he will be able to come home after each check-in looms large.
As a result of stories like Mr. Mejia’s, many people make the decision every day to deprive themselves of the rights and services for which they are eligible out of fear of immigration consequences.
The New Jersey Values Act (S512/A1986), a bill currently before the New Jersey Legislature, would give New Jerseyans more confidence in interactions with state and local agencies. Under the act, agencies would be prohibited from sharing personal information with ICE and could only collect information relevant to immigration status in limited circumstances. These data privacy protections and confidentiality rules are sorely needed to protect families like Mr. Mejia’s.
In 2018, New Jersey’s attorney general adopted the Immigrant Trust Directive – an important step toward drawing a bright line between the role of state and local law enforcement from that of federal immigration agents, in order to ensure that local resources are used to support community priorities.
The Values Act builds on the directive by not just clearly delineating state and local law enforcement functions from immigration enforcement, but also applying that strict separation to all state and local agencies. We must strengthen the directive’s current protections and extend them to all areas of state and local government by passing this legislation.
Under the Values Act, the Attorney General’s Office and state agencies would craft policies for all levels of New Jersey government to enable the most vulnerable to feel more confident in seeking assistance and pursuing opportunities without fear of immigration consequences. Whether it’s at schools, hospitals, or local government offices, no one should fear that routine interactions could result in detention, deportation or family separation.
Essential services like health care, education, and public benefits make our entire state healthier and stronger, but we can only realize those benefits when people have enough confidence in local government to make use of them. Taking care of essential needs should not result in people’s lives being torn apart.
This is especially important given the number of immigrants who call New Jersey home. New Jersey is among the most diverse states in the nation, where nearly one in four New Jerseyans is an immigrant. Among New Jerseyans who were born in the U.S., nearly one in six has at least one immigrant parent.
We have the chance to decide which New Jersey we want to be: We can cultivate trust in the public servants meant to serve our communities. Or we can succumb to the forces of division and fear that ensnare families like Mr. Mejia’s, and force communities to decide between caring for their families or risking separation.
New Jersey must prioritize fairness, opportunity, and keeping families together, and that means making the Values Act law.
This piece was originally published by The Star Ledger/NJ.com.