In the blustery, bone-chilling cold Thursday afternoon, about 50 people gathered in front of the Elizabeth Detention Center, where some 300 foreign nationals are held on immigration violations, to call for the immigration system to be reformed.
The people at the rally, which marked the conclusion of a march that had begun more than six miles away, by the federal building that houses immigration offices in Newark, called on Congress to pass an immigration measure that would give some of the nation’s 12 million illegal immigrants a chance to legalize their status.
They held posters that said “No Human Being Is Illegal,” and “Support Humane Immigration Reform.”
Greg Sullivan of Wyckoff, one of the demonstrators, said he hoped the march and demonstration would help “raise awareness, give people knowledge about the injustices that exist” in the immigration system. Sullivan is director of the Interfaith Refugee Action Team - Elizabeth, which includes a program in which volunteers visit people held in immigrant detention facilities and have no friends or relatives in the area
The event was one of many similar ones held around the country to mark International Human Rights Day, said Chia-Chia Wang, civil participation coordinator for the Newark-based American Friends Service Committee, a coordinator of the demonstration.
“Today’s walk and rally will hopefully demonstrate the different communities’ commitment to immigration reform,” said Wang, who led the chanting group south on Broad Street, toward Elizabeth, just after noon. “Immigration reform is important because there are currently about 12 million immigrants in the United States who have no way to legalize their status. And there are many people who want to come to the United States to join their families and must wait a very long time because of delays.”
President Obama promised during his campaign that he would push for legislation that would tighten enforcement along the borders as well as provide a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria, including no criminal record, efforts to learn English and willingness to pay a fine for being here illegally.
But efforts to get congressional support for other legislation dealing with health care reform and stimulating the economy have put immigration reform on the back burner, frustrating advocates on both sides of the immigration issue.
“Immigration reform is just as important as health care and the economy,” said Wang. “Immigration reform should not be put aside, it should be a priority with the other issues.”
Groups that favor strict immigration enforcement object to legislation that would give illegal immigrants a way to legalize; these groups say the move amounts to an amnesty that rewards lawbreakers.
“Immigration overall – legal and illegal -- has to be reformed,” said Northvale resident Ed Durfee, a member of the United Patriots of America, which supports strict immigration policies. “We’re overloading our country with people who don’t speak English, we’re losing our identity and our culture. If we can’t control our borders, we can’t control our future.”
David Toleda of Clifton has another view. Toleda said he'd walked in the bitter cold from Newark to Elizabeth to show support for the day laborers of Passaic.
“It is not right that people who want to legalize are afraid, are living in hiding, and many of them have children who are American-born,” he said. “They're doing low-level, physically demanding work that I still don't see Americans clamoring to do."
Groups such as American Friends Service Committee say that the nation will never be able to deport the millions of illegal immigrants already here, and that it should provide a way to let some of them legalize their status. They argue that legalizing them would bring them out of the shadows, which they say is crucial to national security, and improve the economy by adding more people to the tax rolls.
An estimated half million illegal immigrants live in New Jersey.