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Letitia Paliliero is afraid for herself, but as a beneficiary of the 2012 Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, she legally can remain in the U.S., the only home she’s known since she was 11 years old. She has a work permit and a valid driver’s license.

She still worries.

But she is more afraid for her parents, both undocumented immigrants from Mexico.

“They both drive – they have to drive to work,” the Pennsauken resident said. “We don’t feel safe; we’re all always looking around.”

And even though she would not hesitate to turn to local law enforcement if she witnessed a crime – or was a victim of one – she understands the fear many undocumented immigrants have about going to the police.

On its website, the New Jersey Alliance for Criminal Justice notes that “with such close ties between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, immigrants are less likely to report crimes, act as witnesses in criminal investigations and prosecutions, or provide intelligence to law enforcement.”

“I know the fear I am hearing from our clients,” said Joanne Gottesman, a professor of law at Rutgers University-Camden and director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic.

“We’re getting a lot of calls from people in the community and ours isn’t even the most well-known nonprofit (working with immigrants). People are afraid.”

Zoraida Ossa of Faith in New Jersey, a community-based nonprofit that works to reduce racial and economic disparities, echoed that alarm before the organization held a news conference in front of Camden’s City Hall earlier this month to voice support for undocumented immigrants.

“In Camden, people are really scared. They fear the police and worry they’ll ask for documents,” she said. “That fear is not conducive to being a victim or a witness to crime. They’d rather run and hide, or stay in the lives they’re living. It’s hard for them to tell the police apart from (immigration enforcement).

“They fear opening the door.”

Federal law vs. state guidelines

USA TODAY reported in February on a sweeping memo by the Department of Homeland Security implementing a plan by President Donald Trump to increase immigration enforcement. Agents from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and ICE were instructed to identify, capture and deport any undocumented immigrant they encounter.

Among the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, USA TODAY reported, agencies should prioritize those convicted of crimes; those who fall under the protection of DACA, like Paliliero, will retain their current status.

Still, despite reported raids in Mississippi, Los Angeles and other areas nationwide, an ICE spokesman said there has been “no demonstrable increase in arrests in Camden, outside of routine targeted enforcement in recent months.”

A rumored raid of businesses along Federal Street – home to many of the city’s Hispanic-owned businesses – was just that: a rumor, the spokesman said.

"We take exception to the term raid because it implies some sort of random action when in reality our work is planned, targeted and lead driven, in which specific individuals are sought,” said ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls in an email to the Courier-Post. “These operations are typically undertaken independently.

“Recent reports of ICE checkpoints and sweeps are false, dangerous and irresponsible. These reports create panic and put communities and law enforcement personnel in unnecessary danger. Any groups falsely reporting such activities are doing a disservice to those they claim to support."

Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson said in dealing with undocumented immigrants in Camden his department follows the policies and protocols set forth by the state Attorney General in a set of 2007 guidelines.

Immigration violations are administrative, not criminal, offenses, he explained.

“A local law enforcement officer does not have jurisdiction to enforce federal immigration (laws). We would have to go through the process of applying to get a federal deputization to do that,” he said, referring to ICE's 287(g) program, which permits state and local law enforcement agencies to partner with ICE to enforce immigration laws within their own jurisdictions.

“What’s paramount to us is that when someone calls for help, to get them the aid they need and resolve the situation as peacefully and efficiently as possible,” Thomson added. “We don’t care who they are, where they came from, what color their skin is, who they worship. … All of that is irrelevant to us.”

“To protect and serve means to protect and serve everyone,” Gloucester Township police Chief Harry Earle said.

The Attorney General’s directive said local law enforcement should only ask about a person’s immigration status “under certain circumstances.”

“Specifically, after an individual has been arrested for a serious violation of state criminal law, the individual’s immigration status is relevant to his or her ties to the community, the likelihood that he or she will appear at future court proceedings to answer state law charges, and the interest of the federal government in considering immigration enforcement proceedings against an individual whom the state has arrested for commission of a serious criminal offense.”

Enforcing the law, the directive states, requires the trust and cooperation of the community, and “public safety suffers if individuals believe they cannot come forward to report a crime or cooperate with law enforcement.”

Noting the state Constitution’s mandate that “a victim of a crime shall be treated with fairness, compassion and respect,” the Attorney General’s directive says “victims, as well as witnesses and other persons requesting police assistance, should not be discouraged from approaching police officers out of fear into their immigration status.”

Some South Jersey jurisdictions work closely with federal immigration authorities. The Salem County Sheriff’s Department entered into an agreement with ICE in December — elected sheriffs can make these agreements without freeholders’ input, according to the Press of Atlantic City. The Salem County Jail also takes inmates from Gloucester County, which sends its inmates to other counties since it closed its own facility.

Undocumented immigrants arrested in Gloucester County, then, can be transported to Salem County Jail, where an ICE-trained Salem County Jail officer will ask about immigration status.

Monmouth and Hudson counties also have agreements in place with ICE. The Press of Atlantic City reported earlier this month that the Cape May County Sheriff's Department was also looking into an agreement.

Confusion and concern

A national atmosphere of anti-immigrant rhetoric, though, has left many undocumented immigrants fearful and concerned. Language barriers and a general mistrust of those in uniform can add to the confusion.

“The level of fear is much higher now,” said Gottesman, the Rutgers law professor. Clients with the Immigrants Justice Clinic include many families with “mixed status." Some are citizens or have legal, permanent residency, while others are undocumented and either came to the U.S. illegally or overstayed a visa, she noted.

“This has created a human crisis,” said Faith in New Jersey’s Ossa. “Kids worry about their parents being deported. Mothers worry about their children and who will care for them if they’re deported or detained. They don’t want their children to end up in the foster care system."

Fear of authorities is common, and was even before recent national developments.

Maria Thomson (no relation to the Camden County chief) said that fear “has always been there.”

A domestic violence counselor with the Hispanic Family Center of Southern New Jersey, she said her organization has “always struggled with misconceptions about law enforcement” and the differences between federal immigration officers and local police.

“A lot of people don’t realize there are different layers of law – civil, criminal, immigration,” she said. “And people who come here, who aren’t familiar with our laws, don’t know that – to them, court is court."

When there is abuse within a family or household, immigration concerns add to an already emotional, difficult situation, she said.

Victims of abuse worry not only for themselves, but the impact on their families. “Even though they are being mistreated, they still love their abuser and don’t want to see them deported. That person is still their spouse, still the parent of their children, maybe still the breadwinner.”

Domestic violence victims are eligible for legal protection, but they must cooperate fully with law enforcement and demonstrate they’ve been abused, she added.

Earle said Gloucester Township’s police department is getting the message out that “victims of crime are victims, no matter who they are and we want to help them.”

“The last thing we want is for someone who’s being abused or harmed not to come forward because of their (immigration) status,” he said.

Camden County’s chief voiced similar concerns: “We know in our city we have a high level of domestic abuse,” Scott Thomson said. “The last thing we want is for women to continue to be abused, for children to be subjected to acts of violence, and not calling for fear of deportation.”

Gottesman’s clinic has a child and family advocacy clinic and a domestic violence clinic. When children are abused, schools and outside caregivers have a legal duty to report their suspicions to authorities, she noted. “But speaking generally, we hear a lot of concern from our child clients about what might happen to the person committing the abuse, and what the consequences are for that person.”

Though abuse can happen in any family with devastating effects, immigration status “can add a whole other layer, and not just within the family but within the community.”

Fear of going to the authorities can make undocumented immigrants more susceptible to crime, said Thomson, the Camden chief.

“We have citizens, criminals, targeting immigrants in Camden,” he said. “They bank on the fact that immigrants won’t go to the police, and being undocumented means you can’t use the banking system without a Social Security number, so many of them deal only in cash.”

Fear makes it hard for police to do their jobs, as well: “With the paranoia that’s brewing in our community, with the fear of deportation, (undocumented immigrants) don’t call us and don’t cooperate with us,” he said. “So the crime rate might actually go up, because if people don’t report criminal activity, there are bad people doing bad things and getting away with it. And they don’t stop – they escalate.”

‘One initial positive experience’

Gottesman acknowledged the difficulties local law enforcement officers face in earning the trust of undocumented immigrants.

“It’s challenging for them. They’re facing pressure from the federal government but to the extent that they can, they need to stand by their word and assure victims they won’t go to ICE. And even then, I’m not sure immigrants will trust that message when the other messages are so strong.”

“A lot of the demagoguery that’s taken place on the national level has generated fear, and Camden is no different,” Scott Thomson said. “We’ve heard from members of the community, from parents who worry about sending their children to school, from people who’ve heard rumors about mass immigration sweeps. We’ve been trying to dispel those rumors and had a conversation with New Jersey immigration officials to make sure there are no mass roundups or deportations taking place.”

Faith in New Jersey has sponsored “Know Your Rights” workshops for undocumented immigrants throughout the state, Ossa said, hoping to keep people from retreating further into the shadows.

“As people of faith, we’re trying to think ahead,” she said. The relationship with local law enforcement has been good in Camden, she noted, where the immigrant community is more established than in Cumberland County, with undocumented farm workers who are more transient and work seasonally.

“In Camden, they are working different types of jobs, in restaurants, factories, landscaping,” she said. In fact, a 2015 Pew Research Center study found more than 65 percent of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. have been here 10 years or more.

Camden County police regularly hold meetings at churches and community centers, the chief said, with Spanish-speaking commanders talking about police procedures and protocols and addressing concerns. It’s not necessarily tied to the current political environment, he said, but rather to the longtime emphasis the department has placed on community-based policing.

“Fortunately for us, we’re not just now introducing ourselves,” he said. “The best way to build trust is the way we’ve been doing it the last three or four years, having cops on bikes and walking the beat, getting to know people. The more positive interactions we have, the more people will trust us and see we’re not the ones looking to deport them.”

In Gloucester Township, Earle said his department has stepped up its outreach to the Hispanic community, with Spanish-speaking officers meeting parishioners at Catholic churches serving immigrants. The department also is looking to add a liaison in township schools.

“We’re constantly pushing that message out,” he said. “We won’t reach everyone, but we’ll try.”

Maria Thomson said often, all it takes is “one initial positive experience” to show people they can trust police. “There are some of our clients who need urgent relief, but others have been living with abuse for so long, they’ve almost learned to handle it. Once they see that they can step away, that there are procedures they can follow, they find it’s not what they expected.”

Scott Thomson said in Camden, immigrants, documented or otherwise, add to the city’s fabric.

“The vilification that’s taken place is unjust. Ninety-nine percent — more than that — are here trying to provide for their families. They’re integral, they’re hard-working, they’re positive contributors to this region and this country.”

Paliliero attends Rutgers-Camden, where she’s majoring in finance, and she works as an administrative assistant at St. Anthony of Padua School in Camden.

She’s confident that she will – and can – go to law enforcement if the need arises.

“I’m a very strong person,” she said. “I would definitely go to police if I needed them. And I want everyone to see that we are part of this community; we came here to work and to help our families.

“We are part of America.”

Staff writer Kim Mulford contributed to this report.

Phaedra Trethan: (856) 486-2417; ptrethan@gannettnj.com

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