Demonstrators, federal agents bring immigration debate to Princeton streets


Adriana Abizadeh

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
The national immigration debate played out Tuesday on the streets of Princeton, with a federal immigration raid in the morning followed in the afternoon by demonstrators demanding that Congress provide a path to citizenship to the 800,000 illegal immigrants brought to the United States when they were young.
The divergent events occurred in a span of six hours, separated by a few blocks apart, first with Immigration and Customs Enforcement arresting four men in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, home to large numbers of illegal immigrants from Central America. Councilwoman Heather H. Howard said the enforcement action had occurred around 6 a.m. on John and Witherspoon streets.
Initial reports indicated three men had been arrested, but that number changed later in the day to four. Municipal officials directed questions to police Chief Nicholas K. Sutter, who did not respond to phone or email messages. Alvin Phillips, a spokesman for ICE’s field office in Newark, also could not be reached for comment.
Later, around noon, anywhere from 150 to 200 people demonstrated in Hinds Plaza in support of a “clean” Dream Act for the 800,000 illegal immigrants, 22,000 of whom live in New Jersey, brought to the United States when they were young. They had been protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, begun by former President Barack Obama, that shields them from deportation. The Trump administration announced in September, however, that it would end the program, one that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had labeled an “open-ended circumvention of immigration laws” and “executive amnesty.” The ball is in the hands of Congress on what to do next.
At a rally that Princeton Democrats and members of the local nonprofit and business communities had sponsored, demonstrators gathered in Hinds Plaza, marched up Witherspoon Street, to Nassau Street, then into Palmer Square and finally back to the plaza. They chanted slogans, in English and in Spanish, carried homemade signs that read “USA built by Dreamers, support DACA” and other messages. Advocates want Congress to take legislative action.
“They need to vote on a clean DREAM act that would provide a path to citizenship for immigrant youth without any additional funding for Trump’s deportation machine,” said Adriana Abizadeh, executive director of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of the sponsors of the demonstration.
Adriana Gonzalez, a 24-year-old DACA recipient who came from Mexico with her family when she was 2, went on a hunger strike last week for four days to draw attention to the cause and did five rallies in four days with six others around the state.
“This is beyond immigrant rights, this is human rights,” she told the crowd in the plaza. “I have been here my whole life. When you tell me to go back to my country, I don’t know what that is.”
President Donald J. Trump has expressed support for the Dreamers, even as he wants better immigration enforcement and favors a wall on the southern border.
“I have a love for these people, and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly,” he said earlier this year.
“Fixing our entire broken immigration system is not a simple task,” Mayor Liz Lempert said when it came time for her to address the crowd. “But this is the easy part. Dreamers are Americans in every single way but on paper.”
She said DACA has support from Republicans and Democrats as well as the business and religious communities.
The rally took place in a town that advertises itself as a “welcoming community” where illegal immigrants are seen as a critical part of the labor force. Princeton is one of the many sanctuary cities in the United States that follow a policy of limited cooperation with federal immigration authorities, such that the town police department will not honor civil immigration detainers, or administrative holds, ICE places on suspected illegal aliens.
“We want every resident to feel at home and to feel supported,” Mayor Lempert said.
But Princeton’s status as a sanctuary city comes with ICE increasing immigration enforcement in such communities, from coast to coast. Mayor Lempert, touching on the raid earlier in the day, said the town had been in touch with “our community partners to help provide services to the effected families.”
Princeton resident John Heilner, a LALDEF board member, said that one of the four people who were picked up had had a driving under the influence offense, while the other three were “swept up,” in his words.
“It’s just too much of a coincidence that it was this morning, a few hours before this rally,” he said of the raid.