Area men will help identify ‘best practices’
New Jersey ranks third in the nation in the number of foreign-born residents as a percentage of the population. Of these, 5 percent or some 400,000 people are undocumented, living outside the system, according to the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network.
The state is seeking to correct that.
On Monday, Gov. Jon Corzine signed Executive Order No. 78 establishing the Blue Ribbon Panel on Immigrant Policy, taking what he called "an important step in creating a comprehensive statewide strategy for weaving immigrants into the economic, social, and civic fabric of our communities and state."
According to Gloria Montealegre, Corzine’s deputy press secretary, the ‘7-member panel, headed by Public Advocate Ronald Chen, will spend 15 months looking at education, citizenship status, civil rights, fair housing, health care, language proficiency, and employment training, making "recommendations on how the state can better prepare immigrants to become fully productive and self-sufficient members of society."
The executive order pointed out that while the federal government enacts immigration policy regarding terms and conditions for entry and work in the United States, "the states have the responsibility for the development and implementation of policies that assist immigrants’ integration into society."
Among the panel members is Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes, a longtime immigration lawyer. Wildes pointed out that in the face of a "deafening silence" from Washington on the issue of immigration, many states are now taking action. The former federal prosecutor noted that the signing of the executive order was particularly meaningful for him, taking place at Liberty State Park, close to where his four grandparents first arrived in the United States.
According to Wildes a member of the federal Committee on Present Danger and chair of the American Jewish Congress’ Committee on International Terrorism "working as an immigration attorney and serving as the mayor of a city with a large immigrant population [has allowed] me to see both sides of the immigration issue."
Pointing out that the Talmud equates silence with acquiescence, he said that "while the challenge of immigration has been heightened since 9/11," Jews whom he called "people of the passport" must be concerned about immigrants and "about the vulnerable."
He also said that while Congress has turned "a deaf ear" to the subject of immigration, apparently unable to talk about terrorism and immigration at the same time, "the buck has to be passed to someone, and it is the local taxpayer who is footing the bill."
"The federal government needs a comprehensive program," he said. "They need to revamp the system." At the same time, he stressed, federal policy must "maintain the civil rights [of immigrants] and respect the dignity of those who have worked hard" to make a life for themselves and their families. "There are always shades of gray," he said.
Wildes noted that Jewish history is replete with immigration stories, beginning with the biblical tale of the exodus from Egypt. "Our community must appreciate the great blessings of this country and not turn our backs on others, as people turned their backs on us," he said. "We need to be an example to others and honor the biblical mandate of hachnasat orchim," the mitzvah of hospitality.
Also on the governor’s panel is former Anti-Defamation League regional director Shai Goldstein, now executive director of the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network, a broad-based network of faith-based, labor, and civil rights organizations in New Jersey.
According to a statement from the organization, NJIPN holds that "immigration reform is a necessary part of realizing our national vision for a healthy and growing economy, diverse and vibrant communities, strong families, and dignity and respect for all."
Citing the failure of the federal government to enact comprehensive immigration reform, Goldstein said "the panel will deal with those aspects of immigration policy that can be dealt with at the state level." He noted, however, that there is much that can be done immediately by the state attorney general and legislature, even before the panel develops its recommendations.
Goldstein said he is hopeful that the state will be able to "ameliorate some of the draconian measures being considered by several municipalities," including Morristown and Bogota, allowing law enforcement officials to "focus on status rather than on specific criminal acts."
"This will open the door to ineffective and inappropriate law enforcement," he said, a fear echoed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "It’s disastrous from a law enforcement perspective."
In a statement opposing the policy, Corzine said that the "complicated" problem of immigration "should not be addressed piecemeal at the local level. This effort to deputize police to enforce federal immigration laws is not comprehensive immigration reform and, by undermining the critical trust communities must have with law enforcement, will actually hinder our law enforcement."
Pointing out that Kevin Ryan, commissioner of the state’s department of human services, has instructed his staff not to discriminate on the basis of status, Goldstein said he would like to see New Jersey’s anti-discrimination laws amended to reflect this concern as well.
"America relies on immigrants as an ongoing source of fresh ideas and entrepreneurial spirit," he said. "Under the present [immigration] laws, most of the people reading your newspaper wouldn’t be here today because their ancestors would have been denied access."
"The Tanakh is replete [with references] underscoring the obligation to welcome the stranger, and [holding that] the law for the resident is the same as that for the non-resident," he said. From a cultural perspective, he added, he is personally "not in favor of returning the Statue of Liberty to France. We need to live up to the words of Emma Lazarus," he said.