New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice (NJAIJ), alongside 19 host and sponsor organizations, kicked off the final week of budget negotiations with a Trenton Takeover that brought together over 100 advocates, activists, and artists.
Marking the occasion of Immigrant Heritage Month and Pride, advocates drew stark contrast between the size of New Jersey’s immigrant communities and their relatively small share of budget and policy priorities, naming Language Access, legal services, and protections for communities of Color as top issues. Advocates named political timidity and overly-cautious election year delays as the primary barriers to their priorities.
“Starting next month, lawmakers are going to return to their districts to begin campaigning for their re-election. It will be the same as it has always been – they will visit our bodegas, eat at our family restaurants, stop by our cultural centers, and have booths at our festivals. They’ll ask if they can count on us in November. But we are here to ask, why can’t we count on them now?” said Erik Cruz Morales with New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “Language barriers and the needed investments in our communities are not new. We know the racial disparities caused by the legislature’s inaction are only growing. Yet every time our communities advocate for the changes, we are told to wait our turn. We are here to say, ‘Enough!’ Communities of Color make up half of the state population, we deserve to take up space.”
The sheer size of the rally served as a visual representation of the breadth of New Jersey’s immigrant community, and highlighted the power of advocates to come together for racial, social, and economic justice and liberation for all. The steps of the Trenton State House were packed with protestors while performers took over the courtyard space with music, dance, and song.
“Speaking on behalf of the Arab and Palestinian population, our community is struggling with language representation and data aggregation. We still are not recognized as a racial category in the census and most official documentation. How can our community get proper health care, educational representation and cultural competency, or proper political representation when we do not exist in legal and governmental documents? On top of that, our Arabic speaking population still struggles with understanding and filling out official documents because they are not provided in Arabic and there are minimal translation opportunities. With one of the highest concentrations of Arab people in the country, New Jersey should be prioritizing the inclusion of Arab speaking individuals, who constantly add to the diversity, vibrancy and richness of the state,” said Abire Sabbagh, Palestine Education Director at the Palestinian American Community Center.
“Celebrating Immigrant Heritage Month acknowledges the often invisible labor of immigrants and the unique challenges they face. Prioritizing policies, such as the Language Access bill and the Data `Disaggregation bill, not only give non-English speakers a sense of belonging and independence, but will contribute to the cultural and economic richness of NJ,” said Laura Choi of the E Pluribus Unum Project. “The ability to communicate is deeply tied to one’s sense of belonging and to one’s capacity to live up to their potential. A lack of language access is often a primary barrier to independence and contribution to their community. NJ is a culturally rich and diverse state with growing populations that are underserved. Being a welcoming state is embedded in New Jersey’s DNA, investing in immigrant communities is what has made this state so great!”
Advocates also pointed out that Language Access empowers individuals to stand up for their rights and seek the services they’re entitled to. They also called for privacy protections to keep communities safe from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“As the Legislature meets to finalize next year’s budget, they need to know that our communities can’t afford another year without guaranteed protections under the law. Almost half of New Jersey’s children live in immigrant families. They need to know they can access the services they deserve and be able to speak up for themselves. They also need protections so they won’t lose their parents due to a traffic ticket or a routine appointment for healthcare or the DMV that gets them deported. We need a Values Act before the end of the year, and if our representatives won’t give it a hearing, then WE will be heard today!” said Jessica Bustamante, organizer with Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center.
“We call on our legislators to prioritize and allocate resources for programs that benefit immigrant youth and families, ensuring equitable access to justice and the opportunity for all to thrive in our great state,” said Priscilla Monico Marín, Executive Director of the New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children. “Like Language Access, the Legal Representation for Children and Youth Program it's a game-changer for immigrant youth in New Jersey. It not only provides legal representation but also vital support and guidance to our youth in navigating a new country and all its systems. By securing legal representation, young people are not only safeguarded from deportation, but feel safe and empowered to pursue opportunities. This program provides stability and the ability for youth to focus on educational opportunities, allowing them to build a future where they can continue to call New Jersey home.”
But racial justice advocates weren’t the only ones on the steps. At one point, agitators attempted to grab the group’s microphone midway through the program, before being diverted away by faith leaders. “It’s not just the legislature’s inaction that is actively harming our communities – the lack of political courage allows extremist groups to gain ground. The state’s share of reported hate crimes and incidents has risen dramatically over the last few years – those actors feel emboldened when they see our State’s highest leaders say immigrant rights and racial justice aren’t ‘important enough’ or are too ‘politically risky.’ We are losing our people to both policy neglect and hate-fueled violence,” said Amy Torres, Executive Director with New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.
The event was hosted by Asian American Pacific Islanders-Montclair, the American Civil Liberties Union, American Friends Service Committee, Faith in New Jersey, League of Women Voters-New Jersey, Make the Road-New Jersey, Newark Communities for Accountable Policing, New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Justice, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, New Labor, Palestinian American Community Center, Thrive Coalition New Jersey, Unidad Latina en Acción, and Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center, a broad coalition of organizations who are fighting for health and abortion access, fair representation, voting rights protections, and protection against police brutality, violence, and overreach.
“On the anniversary of SCOTUS striking down the federal right to abortion, we are reminded how far New Jersey still must go to protect and advance fundamental rights for all who call it home. As one of the most diverse states in the nation, we have an obligation to ensure that New Jersey is fair and welcoming for all by enacting policy change that reflects those values, including the Reproductive Equity Act, the New Jersey Voting Rights Act, a bill to allow municipalities to create strong civilian oversight of police, and the Values Act – all of which remain stalled by lawmakers who choose inaction over progress. We call on the Legislature to advance these important bills so New Jersey can once again be a national leader in civil rights,” said ACLU of New Jersey Campaign Strategist Ami Kachalia.
“Legislators must prioritize issues affecting racial and social justice in New Jersey, including those that strengthen our democracy. This includes passing a New Jersey Voting Rights Act to ensure access to the ballot – including language access – for everyone in our diverse state,” said Nuzhat Chowdhury, Senior Counsel with the Democracy and Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
“Over the last month, lawmakers have fast-tracked big tax cuts for corporations and wealthy homeowners while bills to help working-class and immigrant families have stalled. As the saying goes, budgets are about what we value as a state, and the Legislature is sending a clear message of who they value and who they do not. New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation, and there’s no good policy rationale for holding up proposals, like the Values Act and Language Access,” said Awinna Martinez, Policy Director of New Jersey Policy Perspective.
Cultural workers punctuated the speaker line up with traditional music, dance, and poetry. Performing and contributing artists included Emcee and New Jersey’s 2023 Miss PrEP Lady Celestina, poster art by Gera x W3RC, Amrisa Niranjan, Layqa Nuna Yawar, Emma Demefack, Edgar Aquino-Huerta, poetry by Brianna Rodriguez from Faith in New Jersey, and dance performances by the Palestinian American Community Center’s Dabke Team, The University of the Philippines Alumni & Friends Rondalla String Ensemble, and Mariachi Nuevo Mexico.
“The Philippine national hero, Dr Jose P. Rizal, who was born on June 19, 1861 is quoted as saying: ‘He who does not look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.’ The month of June is Immigrant Heritage Month. The University of the Philippines Alumni & Friends Rondalla, Inc. preserves and celebrates our Filipino heritage, culture, and music by performing our traditional Filipino tunes in our rondalla native string ensemble. It is heartening that Filipino-Americans are rediscovering their Filipino heritage. In 2023, the Philippines is celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the Declaration of Philippine Independence,” said Jose Mari “Lee” Clemente, President, University of the Philippines Alumni & Friends Rondalla Inc.
“I believe the earth was created as a cradle for life. No one life being is more valuable than another. Who are we to decide where people decide to place their roots? The Values Act does the work of valuing human dignity and the Language Access bill makes it accessible to all. It’s the work my ancestors needed,” said Briana Rodriguez, poet and Faith in New Jersey organizer who offered a closing poem for the event.
To view media from the event, click here.