A project of the Center for Community Change

A Humane Approach for Immigration

We wanted to share this latest Op-Ed from the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network with you:

PERSPECTIVE/OP-ED
A humane approach on immigration
Sunday, July 01, 2007 BY NICHOLAS V. MONTALTOThe paralysis in Washington on immigration reform creates an opportunity for New Jersey to fill the void. Certainly, no state can solve every problem left in the wake of the Senate’s failure to reach consensus on immigration policy, but as we learned with health care 10 years ago, states have considerable room for policymaking and corrective action on issues of importance to their residents. Few states have enjoyed the benefits of immigration as much as New Jersey. From the earliest days of the Republic, the state has been a haven for newcomers from abroad. In 1790, New Jersey was one of only two states among the original 13 with a non-English majority. Successive waves of immigrants, largely German and Irish in the 19th century, Italian and Jewish in the early 20th century, and Latino and Caribbean in the late 20th century, found opportunities to contribute their skills, energies and ideals to our diverse and dynamic state. State and local government did not always stay on the sidelines, observing these seismic population shifts with detachment. Indeed, throughout our history, and most especially during the last great wave of immigration, New Jersey played a lead role in efforts to promote immigrant integration. In 1907, for example, recognizing the importance of English as our national language, New Jersey was the first state in the nation to subsidize local school boards to establish evening English and citizenship classes for adult immigrants. In 1911, Woodrow Wilson, then governor of New Jersey, appointed an Immigration Commission to investigate the living and working conditions of the state’s immigrant population. By 1920, New Jersey had established a rich network of settlement houses and immigrant service organizations operating in all the major gateway cities, including Bayonne, Jersey City, Passaic, Paterson, Newark, Orange, Trenton, Princeton and Morristown. During the ’20s and’30s, school districts, including those in Cliffside Park, Englewood, Newark, Tenafly and Woodbury, were among the first in the nation to develop intercultural education programs to foster understanding and good will among children from diverse backgrounds. In a certain sense, the challenges facing the state today are even more daunting than they were 100 years ago. Immigrants today come from a dizzying array of cultural, linguistic and racial backgrounds. For working-class immigrants, there are fewer opportunities for upward mobility in the state’s shrunken manufacturing sector. And large numbers of immigrants, estimated as high as 400,000, are not in legal status. This problem, of course, was less prevalent during the earlier period of open and less regulated immigration, although significant numbers managed to slip through in violation of the regulations that existed at the time. Pressures on governors and state legislatures to “do something” about immigration are growing. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 1,000 different bills were introduced during the 2006-2007 legislative sessions. Some states, such as Arizona and Georgia, seek to usurp the federal role in immigration enforcement, imposing draconian penalties on undocumented residents; others, like California, Illinois and New York, try to ease the burden on those caught in the cross-hairs of a broken system. New Jersey should take this more constructive and humane approach. People in New Jersey pride themselves on their realism and practicality. We know that most illegals are hard-working and decent people, if anything victims themselves of exploitive practices of employers and landlords, and of a system that encouraged their cyclical migration to America for most of the last century. While we can’t give them legal status, we can make their lives less onerous by vigorously enforcing relevant labor laws, by giving them opportunities to learn English, by letting their children attend college at in-state tuition rates, by insulating local police from immigrant enforcement activities, and by allowing immigrants to apply for driving privilege cards. The recent announcement by Commissioner Kevin M. Ryan of the Department of Children and Families that all children in New Jersey, no matter their legal status, will be afforded protection by his department, especially when parents are rounded up and detained by federal authorities, is a step in the right direction. Beyond the problems of the undocumented, state government needs to take the lead to ensure that all immigrants are treated fairly, afforded opportunities to learn English and the American way of life, obtain essential services, advance to citizenship, and participate fully in our democratic society. To retain the state’s position in the global economy and to maintain community harmony, New Jersey must reaffirm its commitment to immigrant integration. What more fitting way to uphold the state motto of “liberty and prosperity” than to bring the blessings of liberty to all our people, immigrants included, and to acknowledge that our prosperity owes much to the contributions of today’s immigrants. Nicholas V. Montalto is chairman of the board of directors of the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network and former CEO of the International Institute of New Jersey.

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