By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
A series of immigration raids around the country and the subsequent fear that they have caused led Princeton officials to begin educating local immigrants of their rights and how they should respond if confronted by federal immigration authorities.
Some 90 to 95 people showed up Thursday night at St. Paul Catholic Church for an information session, given in Spanish, that touched on what to do and what not to do if they are approached by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It came with the government picking up illegal immigrants from Central America in recent raids in states like Georgia and North Carolina.
“I don’t want to pretend that everything is fine, but I also want to address the vulnerability that many people are feeling,” said local immigration attorney Ryan Lilienthal, with municipal human services director Elisa Neira translating for him into Spanish. “What’s happening now is it’s not fun, it’s not nice and it creates a great sense of fear.”
According to the town, illegal immigrants might become a “priority target” for ICE if they either have a conviction or arrest for a felony or other criminal offense like drunk driving, entered the country illegally after Jan.1, 2014 or have a prior deportation order.
The Rev. Miguel Valle, the Spanish minister at the church, said afterward that the session was not intended to create an “aggressive attitude” among the immigrant community before the law and immigration authorities. Rather, he said the aim was to educate them on what they should and should not do if confronted by ICE.
Handouts provided at the meeting, printed in English and in Spanish, urge them to remain silent until they get a lawyer, not to let ICE agents into their home without a warrant, among other steps. They also urged them to call Ms. Neira’s office or other legal aid organizations if they become aware of a raid.
In one of the handouts, they are told not to lie to authorities or show false documents. “Don’t answer questions about your immigration status or where you were born,” it read. “Keep saying you want to call your attorney.”
The town has said it is not aware of any impending raid in Princeton. Princeton police Chief Nicholas K. Sutter, whose department does not participate in raids, could not be reached for comment.
A message left at ICE’s press office was not returned Friday.
The crowd for Thursday’s session arrived steadily, with the forum starting several minutes later than the 7 p.m. scheduled start time, in the church basement. Some came with children, including one woman seated in the front row.
When a microphone was passed around, people gave their names and said what countries they were from, places like Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. Most lived in Princeton, where 90 percent of the Latino community is undocumented, according to the Rev.Valle.
Organizers used videos, including one from the Spanish-language band, La Santa Cecilia, performing their song, “Ice El Hielo,” in which ICE agents dressed in SWAT gear are shown doing a raid. Later members of the audience did role playing skits for situations in which they might encounter ICE agents.
Princeton is among the so-called sanctuary cities around the country in which local police do not comply with civil immigration detainers that the federal government puts on people living in the country illegally.
Local officials have defended the practice by saying police are not supposed to enforce immigration law. Mayor Liz Lempert and others have stressed the importance of building relationships between local law enforcement and immigrants, to encourage them to report crimes and act as witnesses if they see illegal activity.
But sanctuary cities are seen as controversial, with critics saying that municipalities like Princeton are breaking the law. On the same night as the immigration forum, Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Chris Christie took sanctuary cities to task, during the GOP presidential debate.
Last year, after a man was attacked with a machete-style knife near Witherspooon Street, it was learned the suspect, Jose Lino Lopez-Segura, was believed to be illegal immigrant who had a prior arrest in the former township for an assault but stayed in the country. ICE and Princeton Police officials then offered contradictory information about whether the then-township police department had notified ICE after the first incident, back in 2009.
By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer