The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) at the College, along with Uni?n Latina, held an open forum on Tuesday, March 27 on the growing issue of the rights of illegal immigrants in New Jersey. Edward Barocas, legal director of ACLU N.J., and Alvaro Argueta, a psychiatrist practicing in Hamilton and Trenton and an immigrant from Guatemala, were both invited to speak.
Barocas spoke about a few of the cases he has been involved in since joining ACLU in May 2001, particularly one in Riverside, N.J., where the town has passed an ordinance imposing a fine for hiring or renting to illegal immigrants. According to Barocas, the effect of this ordinance has been that many of the immigrants, primarily from Brazil, have left town.
“I think this is going to be struck down,” he said.
Barocas said that the ordinance contradicts New Jersey’s anti-discrimination law, which he called “the best anti-discrimination law in all 50 states.”
“Towns can only do what the (state) legislature allows them to do,” Barocas said.
Barocas believes that though the ordinance is aimed at all illegal immigrants, it gives landlords and employers cause to discriminate.
“If I go to Riverside and I want to rent an apartment, I’m going to rent an apartment, no questions asked,” he said. Then, gesturing to Argueta, he continued, “But if the doctor here goes, he’s going to get questioned.”
Argueta spoke about what an immigrant goes through from a psychological standpoint.
“The immigrants leave their country and come to live in a new society,” he said. “Can you imagine the fear?”
He also explained the basis for discriminating against immigrants.
“When we see somebody who doesn’t belong, we reject them,” he said.
Argueta told the story of a 55-year-old immigrant he treated. According to Argueta, she was constantly afraid that the police were after her.
“Books like the Bible say that you should be nice to immigrants, because you were once immigrants,” he said.
When asked by a student in the audience if he thought that adopting English as the national language would alleviate the immigration situation in America, he responded affirmatively.
“I think personally that it will help, because it’s much better to speak English. But,” he added, “we have to educate the comers.”
“(Immigrants) feel rejected when they speak English and no one understands them,” he said. “I still speak English and people don’t understand me.”
John Leschak, president of ACLU at the College, explained in an interview after the forum why he thought students needed to hear about illegal immigration.
“I think we should be concerned not only with the war in Iraq, but also the war at home,” he said, citing the relative lack of attention the issue of immigration has received compared with the war abroad.
“It’s really scary that because someone is not a recognized citizen, they just fall into a black hole.”