Immigration Issues Demand Greater Sense of Urgency

Friday, August 17, 2007

By LAWRENCE AARON
RECORD COLUMNIST

KEEP AN EYE ON the blue-ribbon panel created last week after Governor Corzine signed an executive order to study the impact of immigration on New Jersey. The aim is to ease immigrants' access to state government services.

Problem is, there's no acknowledgment in the order that the people he's trying to help are here illegally. Its mandate says nothing about the state's 450,000 illegal immigrant residents.

The purpose of this panel is to come up with "a comprehensive and strategic statewide approach to successfully integrate the rapidly growing immigrant population in New Jersey."

There's little argument that immigrants are widely accepted for the new energy they infuse into many aspects of American life. Immigrants per se are not what the majority of the state's residents are agitated about. The concern is specifically the overwhelming number of unknown and unregulated, undocumented immigrants.

When state Public Advocate Ron Chen was named to chair the Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel on Immigrant Policy, he alluded to the hostile confrontations at the Morristown immigration rallies as "palpable division and resentment, often born of understandable frustration."

That common sentiment is expressed from the man on the street all the way up to the highest levels of state and local officialdom.

Among the nearly 30 members on Chen's panel of immigration advocates and bureaucrats are representatives of several Bergen municipalities on the front lines of managing the influx.

"There are extraordinary housing, medical and educational costs that local taxpayers are shouldering because of the silence from our elected officials in Washington," said Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes, who also chairs the state League of Municipalities Immigration Task Force.

As an experienced immigration lawyer, Wildes says if immigrant communities are made to feel police and government are a threat, they go underground. But avoiding contact for fear of deportation makes them vulnerable to exploitation and might endanger others, he said. For example, an illegal housekeeper might be afraid to call the fire department.

Lagging way behind, New Jersey is one of the few states with no new legislation addressing immigration problems in housing, education, driving privileges and medical programs. A recent report from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows the Garden State has been sluggish in its pursuit of any legislation to correct the serious conflicts linked to illegal immigration.

Another concern I have with this panel is its curious timetable. In spite of the urgency suggested by the Morristown situation, Corzine is giving the panel 15 months to issue a report, which comes after the 2008 elections.

How serious can he be about helping immigrants or helping communities deal with grating problems that need solutions now?

Immigration problems need to be addressed centrally, and they need to be addressed with a spirit of urgency. Fifteen months is too long, and only adds to the growing frustration of cities and residents fed up with life in limbo.

The report last week from the National Conference of State Legislatures found many states in a quandary over how much they can do in the absence of national immigration reforms. The NCSL says this patchwork approach has yielded so far this year 1,404 bills proposing to regulate immigrants' access to schools, jobs, housing, driving, law enforcement and human trafficking.

Had such a panel been created as a national task force, we could have potentially avoided the Senate fiasco in May and the frustration of Hazleton, Pa., and Morristown.

With the third-highest percentage of foreign-born, New Jersey has one of the poorest state records of providing any legislation at all to help communities address the influx of the undocumented. Rather than dragging it out 15 months, the panel should submit a package to the next legislative session, and demonstrate a process for other states to follow.

Reproduced from The Record
Friday, August 17, 2007
by Michael J. Wildes, Mayor, City of Englewood
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