I had a conference call on the morning of September 11th with a legislative aide from a local Congressman’s office. The topic: his support for a fair and just legalization program for immigrants in the United States. We were hoping to schedule a visit to his Washington office during an upcoming lobbying day for immigrants’ rights supporting the positive talks between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox around reforming North American immigration policies.
Needless to say, that conversation never took place. The end of summer and the slowing economy had already led to a steady rise of people coming to Immigrant Worker’s Rights Project (IWRP) in need of assistance, but my advocacy efforts were still optimistically focused on broader potential changes in immigration and labor policies. Now, rather than fighting the 1996 laws and strategizing for positive, even prospective reform in immigration laws, I feel as if we are fighting for our lives.
In the days after the disaster, an Arab immigrant came to IWRP. He had been forced out of his construction job-amidst downturned looks from co-workers and the screams and shouts of his supervisor that he had a "lot of nerve" to show up after everything that had happened. Jersey City clients called me to ask if I could report the missing relatives of friends because they were too afraid of getting caught by the authorities and deported. First one client, then another called to let me know that he was leaving the United States for good, fearful of what’s to come. With each, we were incredulous at the changes in our conversation. Just a week earlier, I’d been calling around to recruit folks for the upcoming lobby day and march, and the enthusiasm in the community for reform was infectious.
Now, only fear is infectious. Despite draping American flags on their cars and wearing red, white and blue ribbons, many of my clients know that they can easily be the victims of state- sponsored or vigilante reprisals. And beyond that immediate fear, there is the concern that the shrinking economy is closing what limited opportunities were already available. Meanwhile, misguided concerns for national security are endangering many of the statutory and adminis- trative rights which have been established over the years for immigrant workers and, more generally, the overall workforce. From national proposals to limit remedies available to workers to local restrictions on drivers licenses, low-wage workers may find themselves fewer channels to meaningful employment with basic worksite protections.
Since September, IWRP has been involved in both responsive community education efforts and greater projects improving and securing the rights of immigrants. I am staffing an immigrants’ information table at the New Jersey Family Assistance Center to provide answers to specific questions around benefits and charity care for immigrants until the Center’s scheduled closing in December. A countless number of immigrant families and workers have not come for- ward to claim benefits or to participate in transitional programs as they are fearful of possible retribution. A coalition of organizations, including IWRP, held a know-your-rights forum in Paterson in October to discuss benefits access for families of victims as well as our rights when confronted by the INS, FBI, and other government authorities. IWRP has undertaken an ad hoc organizing role in connecting community advocates and legal organizations seeking to assist the hundreds of detainees in NJ county jails that have been picked up in FBI sweeps and targeted raids.
And finally, of course, the displacement of thousands of workers and loss of over 100,000 low- wage jobs in the New York metropolitan area has created an exigency requiring long-term strategizing for access to employment benefits and job training programs. The questions we continue to confront serve as a grim reminder of history’s endless repetition of tighter borders, punishing our nation’s most vulnerable workers and other policies that do not lead to meaningful change or a more secure nation. They only lead to greater exploitation and violence, both in the global economy and right in our backyard. Providing accurate information and supporting the work of social service providers and organizers, ensuring that proposed policies are understood and challenged by the immigrant community leadership, remains a priority of IWRP through these difficult times.
-By Jennifer Ching, ACLU-NJ's Skadden Fellow