Embracing the huddled masses

It was the perfect setting for an immigration related press conference: an old train terminal in Jersey City’s Liberty State Park, within view of the Statue of Liberty, where countless immigrants poured off ferries from nearby Ellis Island to board trains for points West.

It was here that Gov. Jon Corzine signed an executive order creating a new blue ribbon panel on immigration during a well-choreographed event. But there was a less jubilant undertone as well — it was clear that the Governor did not want the tension that characterized the recent Morristown anti-immigration rally to replicate across the state.

The panel will have 27 members – two state legislators chosen from the black and Hispanic caucus, seven commissioners from state agencies, and 18 members appointed by the Governor. It will be led by Public Advocate Ron Chen for a period of 15 months, with a mission to recommend how to integrate the state’s immigrant population – both legal and illegal – in matters ranging from civil rights, naturalization, healthcare, employment, job training, housing, education and language.

Diana Mejia, a union organizer and co-founder of Wind of the Spirit, an immigrant advocacy group, said she was optimistic about the panel, and hopes they’ll address issues like driver’s licenses and civil rights for illegal immigrants.

“I think that it’s a good start – we look forward to what’s going to come out of this. And I think it was wonderful that they mentioned Morristown, because of all the crises that are happening there right now,” said Mejia, who was a counter-protestor at the Morristown rally.

The ceremony was everything you’d expect from a fairly large political production. It was well organized and well attended, attracting not only the Governor but Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, U.S. Reps. Donald Payne and Albio Sires, Hudson County Executive Tom Degise, and Chen. Even Chief Justice Stuart Rabner’s teenage daughter was on hand to sing “America the Beautiful” in between studying an SAT preparatory book.

And while nobody mentioned the name of Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello in a speech, the disapproval of his approach to illegal immigration – using section 287(g) of the Immigration and Naturalization act to deputize local police officers as immigration agents — was apparent.

“We have not always reached out and been consistent in how we integrate,” said Corzine, who called the violent outbreak at the Morristown rally “pushback” against the type of attitude he hopes to foster. “We have to look out for the civil rights and human rights of each and every human being,” he added.

Chen, the son of Chinese immigrants, was more blunt in his criticism of Cresitello’s policies. He was present for the Morristown rally.

“The fear that was present on both sides was palpable and distributing,” said Chen, who added that he thought the mayor’s idea to deputize local police officers as immigration agents was responsible for “spurring resentment and causing division.”

Reached for comment, Cresitello said that the idea of waiting 15 months to hear recommendations sounded absurd. If the state and federal governments enforced the existing laws, he said, there would be no need for an advisory panel.

“I don’t want to wait 15 months for some blue ribbon panel to come back and tell us what needs to be done today,” said Cresitello. “What needs to be done today is to enforce those few laws.”

As for the Morristown rally, Cresitello said, the violence was caused by protestors on the other side of the issue. He went on to call Chen a “hatchet man” for Corzine.

“As the public advocate, he should be helping the Morristown residents deal with the problem of illegal immigration and make sure that his boss the governor would enforce existing labor law,” said Cresitello.

Perhaps the politician least critical of Cresitello was Mayor Healy.

“I’m not about to criticize a colleague I know and respect,” said Healy. “Let’s just say we have diverse views on diversity.”


  Embracing the huddled masses