On a frigid Sunday in January, after a typical packed-to-the-gills 11 a.m. Spanish Mass at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in Camden, churchgoers were invited to attend a legal seminar with an Immigration attorney to learn how recent changes to immigration enforcement policy might affect them and their community.
About 100 people filed into the church’s next-door school auditorium where immigration lawyer Derek DeCosmo of the Zucker Steinberg & Wixted firm in Camden would spend the next hour explaining a recent federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants from Central America, the actual threat it poses in New Jersey, and the rights of undocumented people.
At the end of December, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it would focus deportation efforts on more than 100,000 immigrants from Central America who have entered the country illegally since 2014, been denied asylum, and ignored deportation orders.
“The new focus is on women and children who are really refugees. They’re fleeing domestic violence and they’re fleeing gangs,” DeCosmo said during the meeting.
Increasing gang-related violence in Central America, particularly in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, has led to an influx of immigrants over the past two years. During the summer of 2014, the peak of the crisis, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing Central America crossed the border. Mexican authorities helped staunch the flow through increased border security, but migrants have continued to pour into the U.S.
Many turn themselves over at the border and then apply for asylum. They live with relatives while they await their court dates. If asylum is denied, they are served a deportation order. Those who have ignored these orders, together with new border arrivals, are the targets of the new DHS directive.
Immigration advocates, on the other hand, say that many of the Central American migrants who have been given deportation orders did not have adequate legal representation when they pled their case in court.
However, according to information DeCosmo said he received from New Jersey’s office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the new directive is not likely to be enforced in the state. In recent weeks, arrests of hundreds of Central American women and children based on the order have taken place mostly in states like Texas and Georgia, which have detention facilities built to house families, DeCosmo said. New Jersey lacks such facilities.
Instead, state immigration officials will continue to target those with criminal records, as they have for the last several months, in accordance with a DHS directive from November of 2014. Even though enforcement of the new directive aimed at Central Americans will be limited, New Jersey has been seeing an all-time high in enforcement activities over the last six months, he said.
His presentation focused on the rights of undocumented people when confronted by Immigration authorities and their options in the event of an arrest. He also took questions from the community.
Anyone with an outstanding deportation order is highly at risk, DeCosmo said. These people should immediately talk to an attorney and file to reopen their deportation order and for a stay of deportation to halt the process. Undocumented people with criminal records, especially those who have recently been convicted of a DUI, are also at high risk.
Those who are in the midst of court proceedings or awaiting a court date are less at risk. If someone has a child with a health concern, they should file that information because it can lead to a stay of deportation.
Although officials are targeting those with DUI’s or other criminal records, recent arrivals, and those with deportation orders, other undocumented people living in the same house or working in the same place at the time of an arrest may also be detained.
Families should make sure they have a plan in the event of an arrest or deportation. Children in particular should know who to call and where to go in the event a parent is detained while they are at school. Families should establish contacts who are willing to take care of the children and who have access to the family’s money for bail and important documents.
DeCosmo reminded attendees that they are not obligated to allow ICE officials into their home unless they have a signed warrant. Outside of the home, they are not obligated to speak to an ICE official. He encouraged people who are confronted by ICE outside of the home, on the street or at work, to record the encounter on their smart phones. He also encouraged people who would be in danger if they were returned to their home country to mention that to the officials at the time of arrest.
“If you get put in deportation it’s not necessarily the worst thing,” DeCosmo said on a positive note at the end of his presentation. “Although it’s a traumatic experience to get arrested…we get a lot of people their permanent residency through the deportation process. Sometimes putting someone in deportation is the best thing that happens to a person because it allows them to get their legal status.”
Sister Veronica Roche, pastoral associate at St. Joseph’s, opened and closed the event with prayer.
“We are people of faith and with God, all things are possible. We believe in the power of prayer,” she said at the close of the meeting. “God gives us talents and strength to keep fighting for a comprehensive reform.”
The event was organized by the Leadership Group of St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral (Grupo de Lideres de San Jose), which meets on the last Tuesday of each month, and Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP). The groups’ next event will be a “Know your rights” workshop for immigrants at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Camden on Sunday, Feb. 7 at 12:30 p.m.