12/28 USA: Immigtant News - No Christmas Cheers
- 12/28 USA: Immigtant News - No Christmas Cheers
By: National Immigrant Soliadrity Network
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1) Jordanian student fights deportation to sustain dream (Pittsburgh
2) Two Years Gone, Post-9/11 Detainee Still Held Without Charges (ABC News)
3) Fear and Tight Screening Stem Green Card Lottery (New York Times)
4) Some Mexicans Fear Bush's Immigrant Proposal Is Tactic for '04 Campaign
5) Flaw in immigration law threatens deportation for Haitian refugees
6) N.J. town sticking with plan to close immigrant work zone, immigrant right
activists protest (The Examiner)
1) Jordanian student fights deportation to sustain dream
Saturday, December 27, 2003
By Bill Schackner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Abdelqader K. Abu-Snaineh expects to get a degree from La Roche College in
August. But his excitement over that milestone is tempered by a more worrisome
date on his calendar a month later.
That day is Sept. 15, when he goes before a judge to fight the government's
attempt to deport him.
It's been six months since the Jordanian student became center stage in a
debate over what, in terror-weary America, constitutes a harmless oversight or a
threat to national security.
Days after his 21st birthday in June, immigration officers led him away from
campus in handcuffs and placed him in federal detention for failing to show up
for special registration, a short-lived government program. Under it, males
older than 16 from mostly Muslim countries were interviewed, photographed,
His arrest was the first of its kind to surface publicly in Pittsburgh. To
this day, people hold sharply different views on what the case illustrates.
Some said they have little sympathy for those who run afoul of laws intended
to safeguard Americans, even if those accused are college students like
Abu-Snaineh, with no prior transgressions. Others insist the government overreacted,
noting that Abu-Snaineh was labeled a Level 1 security risk, even though he
himself notified La Roche about the missed appointment and had sought the
college's advice on how to make things right.
In interviews as he finished final exams this month, Abu-Snaineh seemed less
interested in the debate over his arrest than in salvaging his dream of
getting a job and a graduate degree in the United States, despite the government's
attempt to have him removed.
"I'm not going to give up," said Abu-Snaineh, who is studying computer
science. "People go through changes, hard times, but sometimes you have to be
strong. You have to live up to what your family expects of you and what you expect
He didn't tell his parents or two younger sisters about the arrest, saying
they might worry or be disappointed in him. He hasn't seen them since late 2001,
but can't risk traveling home to Jordan while the case is pending.
"If I go home, I'm deported by default," he said. "I can't get back here
Nor can he apply for jobs with much certainty or be sure that he can actually
enroll in any graduate school that might admit him. He has reluctantly begun
considering backup options like doing graduate work in Canada.
"When you're a senior, you want to know what the next step is, you want to be
able to prepare yourself," he said. "It's affected my life big time. It's
affected me personally, socially. I want everything to be normal again."
Some things have changed since Abu-Snaineh's nine-day detention.
Earlier this month, the government terminated The National Security Entry/Exit
Registration System, under which special registrations were conducted. And
two federal court rulings called into question some aspects of the Bush
administration's war on terrorism, specifically its handling of prisoners.
But Michael Gilhooly, director of public affairs for the eastern region of
Immigration Custom Enforcement, said the elimination of the program doesn't
change the fact that, at the time Abu-Snaineh was cited, it was in force.
While it was in effect, critics including civil liberties' groups argued that
the program's focus on a subset of foreigners amounted to little more than
religious and ethnic profiling.
Abu-Snaineh's lawyer, Robert Whitehill, said the program was poorly
publicized and flawed. He said it snared someone who is the sort of foreign visitor the
United States ought to embrace, someone with solid grades and a track record
of involvement in campus activities from athletics to tutoring.
"He wants to stay here, in my opinion, for all the right reasons. He sees
opportunities to better himself," Whitehill said. "It's hard to imagine many
greater distractions on a student's intellectual activities than facing the
possibility of being removed, not from the college or university, but from the
country in which you are studying."
But those more supportive of the government's crackdown on foreign visitors
argue a bigger issue is at stake than any one immigration case, or whether one
government program had flaws that led to its demise.
After all, no federal program can be perfect, said Paul Rosenzweig, senior
legal research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
"Are we bound not to act unless we're perfect?" he asked.
"Some of the Sept. 11 terrorists came here on student visas," Rosenzweig
said. "If heightened American scrutiny has dissuaded people from coming here
that's unfortunate, but equally unfortunate is the fact that some people have in
the past taken advantage of our student visa program."
He's not convinced that a 10 percent decline in foreign students coming from
Middle Eastern countries reported this fall by the Institute of International
Education is necessarily the result of harsher visa rules, including the
special registration program. He said the economy, for one, could have played a
But civil liberties groups, such as the ACLU, say the special registrations
sent out a message, especially to those in Middle Eastern countries, that they
were liable to be harassed in America.
"Regardless of whether he violated the registration requirement, is there any
evidence that he poses a threat? It's not like he was fleeing," Pittsburgh
ACLU Legal Director Witold Walczak said at the time of Abu-Snaineh's arrest. "He
was taking 18 credits. He had at least a 3.3 average. They know where he is
and what he's doing -- studying. Now he's a threat?"
Abu-Snaineh, who expressed gratitude toward the people who had come to his
aid, was one of two Jordanians attending La Roche who missed the April 25
special registration deadline. The second student, Bassam Yasen, was not detained
after turning himself in to immigration authorities and also is fighting a
government bid to remove him from the country.
A calendar hearing will likely be held in April, but a hearing on the merits
of the case has not yet been set.
Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@... or 412-263-1977.
2) Two Years Gone
Post-9/11 Detainee Still Held Without Charges
By Nancy Weiner
B U F F A L O, N.Y., Dec. 27— Benemar Benatta still isn't sure why the U.S.
government kept him locked in solitary confinement long after it knew he had
nothing to do with 9/11.
"I am not [a] criminal," Benatta said. "I [have] never been a criminal."
An electronics technician in the Algerian air force, Benatta was sent to the
United States in 2000 to train with a military plane manufacturer.
But just six days before 9/11, he fled to Canada, seeking asylum.
He was detained at the border for having false identification. Then the
attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened, and the 29-year-old
Muslim was sent to a prison in New York City where he says he was locked in
solitary confinement 24 hours a day.
"If they took me outside, outside my cell, sometimes they twist my hands,"
Benatta said. "Sometimes they knock my head with the wall."
Two months later, the FBI cleared Benatta of any connection to terrorists.
But Benatta was never told that he had been cleared, and he remained in solitary
confinement without legal representation for five more months.
"No attorney that I know of knew that he existed," said Joe Mistrett, a
federal public defender now representing Benatta.
Eventually, Benatta was sent to a detention facility in Buffalo, N.Y., to
face charges for possession of a fake American ID, and granted a lawyer —
"I'm not faulting the government for taking an interest in Benemar Benatta,"
Mistrett said. "I just don't understand why they persisted, and the way he was
held in custody."
‘How Many More?’
In September, a federal magistrate in Buffalo concluded the government's
handling of Benatta bordered on the bizarre. The judge recommended that the
criminal charges against Benatta be dropped. They were.
"One thing we need to find out is, how many more Mr. Benattas are there in
custody?" said Elisa Massimino of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "How
many people have, either intentionally or not, been slipped through the cracks
and are being held without charge and without access to counsel?"
Justice Department and immigration officials declined to be interviewed for
"I tried to be understanding," Benatta said, "[but] what happened has
happened already, you know? Apology or anything, it's not going to change anything."
Benatta remains behind bars, fighting deportation to Algeria, where he fears
he could face life in prison or execution.
3) Fear and Tight Screening Stem Green Card Lottery
By Nina Bernstein
The New York Times, December 27, 2003
For years it has been the annual wild card of American immigration policy:
a worldwide lottery in which millions gamble on winning a green card, and
with it the chance to live and work legally in the United States. But this
year, with a Dec. 30 deadline looming and 55,000 green cards at stake, the
lottery has attracted fewer than half the usual number of applications,
falling to 5 million from as many as 13 million.
The startling drop-off, everyone agrees, results from the fact that for the
first time applications are being accepted only by computer, and government
officials say that has curtailed duplications and fraud.
But immigrants and their advocates say the falloff, while linked to the
computerization, results from a variety of other factors: fear of giving
information to the government online; lack of access to computers; and new
opportunities for immigrants to be defrauded.
The falloff, and the different explanations, show that like so much else
involving immigrants and government the lottery is being transformed by new
perceptions of fear and uncertainty.
State Department officials insist that the apparent decline is misleading.
For the first time, the officials said, they can electronically compare
applications, automatically disqualify anyone who applies more than once,
and store information about applicants. In the past, they say, multiple
applications often went undetected including many from immigrants desperate
to legalize their undocumented lives in New York.
But immigrants themselves say other reasons are also depressing the
numbers. Some people simply lack access to the tools to apply: a digital
photo scanner, a computer and an Internet connection. Some already in the
United States fear that leaving a computer trail could make them targets of
deportation. And hundreds of thousands of others who thought that they were
applying were tricked instead, by official-looking Web sites run by a Fort
Lauderdale couple living their own version of the American dream.
The couple, John Romano and Hoda M. Nofal, bought a $1.5 million waterfront
home, paid off more than $739,000 in credit card debt and amassed a $3.5
million bank account by fraudulently collecting fees for Internet lottery
applications that were never submitted, according to criminal charges filed
against them in October by federal authorities.
Now, with only a week to go, upstart businesses in computer shops, tax
offices and basements all over New York are offering to help would-be
applicants play the new odds. Some are scams, New York City officials
warned last week. But many are just part of the age-old self-help network
of former greenhorns.
A currency trader from Northern Ireland, for example, recently found aid at
a tiny copy shop run by Bangladeshis on the Upper West Side of Manhattan,
after discovering by chance that he was one of those conned by the Florida
couple's Web site.
The copy shop, on West 77th Street, is so small that it offers only
standing-room use of its two computers, for $6 an hour. But two of the
three Bangladeshi men behind the counter are past green-card lottery
winners, and they were already trying to help one of their own countrymen
convert a passport photograph into digital pixels when the Irish trader
confided his troubles.
"After about a dozen tries, we got it in," the trader said, pleading for
anonymity after disclosing that he had overstayed temporary visas for seven
years. "It was the blind leading the blind."
Word spread, and in recent days a small stream of local deliverymen has
come to the copy shop for similar help for about $15 - "black people,
Chinese people, Yemeni, Egypt," said Sanu Sheak, the shop's Bangladeshi
owner, whose brother-in-law is another lottery winner.
"Everybody has a dream to come to America - the golden dream," added Mr.
Sheak, 39, who sold flowers in the street and cleaned offices at night when
he first arrived in 1986. "They think that it's easy, but then they come
here and find out."
No immigrant group in New York City has played the green card lottery
better than Bangladeshis. They began winning their way to America in 1990,
when Congress established the program, officially called the Diversity Visa
Lottery, as a permanent reincarnation of smaller lotteries in 1986 and 1989.
The number of lottery green cards is small compared with the 620,000 others
available yearly, but those are reserved for the close relatives of
citizens and people sponsored by employers. The ostensible purpose of the
lottery was to encourage ethnic diversity in the American population, but
it was widely seen as a means of increasing European immigration. The
lottery programs in the 1980's were dubbed "the Irish sweepstakes," because
the biggest winners were immigrants from the Republic of Ireland living
illegally in the United States.
"This was part of the story of wrong assumptions in our immigration policy
debate," said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior policy analyst at the Migration
Policy Institute, a research and advocacy group. "They thought, more Irish.
No one knew the principal beneficiaries were going to be Bangladeshis."
Intense press coverage, high levels of literacy amid poverty, and large
families help explain why so many Bangladeshis applied, officials say,
adding that identity fraud was also a factor.
In New York, where about half the Bangladeshis in the United States have
settled, their numbers grew to 107,000 from 9,000 during the 1990's.
Stuart Patt, a State Department spokesman, said that so far the flow of
electronic applications (through dvlottery.state.gov) mirrors past
patterns, with Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ethiopia in the lead, and more than
170 countries represented. But the official estimate of 5 million
applicants by the end of the month is well below the 13 million mailed in
1999 and 2000, and even the 8.7 million sent immediately after Sept. 11,
2001. Last year, 10 million applications were received.
The lottery is open only to those from countries that have sent fewer than
50,000 people to the United States in the past five years. From millions of
applicants, the State Department randomly selects about 110,000 "winners,"
sending them invitations to apply for a visa at the closest consular
office. About half fail to complete the process in time or are
disqualified. The supply of diversity visas goes to the rest first-come,
In the past, applications that were not selected were discarded unopened,
Mr. Patt said. To improve the odds, some people applied in multiple names,
and when one of their identities "won," brought in false documentation.
Digitized photographs will make such fraud far more difficult. "We will be
using facial recognition software to weed out people in multiple
identities," Mr. Patt said. Another benefit, he added, is that the Internet
bypasses corrupt and incompetent postal systems that sometimes dumped
thousands of undelivered applications.
Bangladeshis here readily agree that the old way encouraged fraud, and some
praised the new process for greater fairness. "One per person - this is a
very good system," said Bishawjit Saha, owner of a Bangladeshi bookstore in
Jackson Heights, Queens, where two college students set up shop recently to
help with electronic applications.
But Mr. Saha and one of the college students also said that the ease of
merging and searching such computer databases is frightening away some
"A lot of people are fearful about how this is going to be used," said the
student, Hamidul Hoq, who already has a green card.
Mr. Saha cited the case of an illegal immigrant grocery worker who has
wavered about applying. The worker fears that if he enters identifying
information online he could be giving himself up for deportation to the
successors of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Department
of Homeland Security.
Similar concerns reduced applications by the Irish in New York, said
Siobhan Dennehy, executive director of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center
"People are being cautious this year, more than any before," Ms. Dennehy
said, noting that since Nov. 1, when this year's lottery opened, only a few
hundred have showed up to apply online. Last year more than 2,500
applications forms were collected from the center.
But Mr. Patt, the State Department spokesman, said there were no plans to
share the data with other agencies.
"The information is not being collected to look for people to deport," Mr.
Patt said. "It's not being done as a tool for enforcement, it's being done
for administrative improvement." When pressed, he added: "Would we make
that information available if Homeland Security would make the request? I'm
not saying we would deny it."
The Bangladeshi student, Mr. Hoq, was not reassured. "That's my fear," he
said, "they don't rule it out."
In recent years some applicants used a family address abroad, hoping to
collect the visa overseas without disclosing that they had lived in the
United States illegally. But in October 2002, as part of tightened security
after 9/11, the government began keeping track of exits as well as entries,
Ms. Dennehy noted. More immigrants now fear that if they leave America,
they will be unable to return.
Still, there will always be people who dream of striking it lucky, said Mr.
Sheak, whose copy shop is now a neighborhood fixture - "like family," broke
in one regular customer, an elderly woman whose rich Hungarian accent
seemed undiluted by more than 50 years in New York.
Mr. Sheak grinned under his Knicks cap, as his two lottery winners sprang
to serve her. "In Bangladesh, you have to be lucky to be alive," he said.
"Miss, I keep telling you, everything depends on luck."
4) Bush Immigration Plan Hailed
Some Mexicans Fear Proposal Is Tactic for '04 Campaign
By Kevin Sullivan
The Washington Post, December 25, 2003
MEXICO CITY, Dec. 24 -- Mexicans reacted with cautious optimism Wednesday
to reports that President Bush planned to propose immigration reforms more
than two years after the United States shelved the issue -- Mexico's top
priority -- to focus on combating terrorism.
Analysts said they worried that Bush's plan, which officials said Bush
would present before he traveled to Mexico in mid-January for a hemispheric
summit and private talks with President Vicente Fox, could be little more
than a campaign tactic in the election year.
But whatever the motivation, many also said they hoped Bush's interest in
Mexico and immigration reform were genuine and that relations that had
soured over Mexican opposition to the war in Iraq were on the rebound.
"This could be a very risky Christmas present for President Fox," said
Rafael Fernandez de Castro, one of Mexico's leading international relations
specialists. "This is very welcome news. But I am worried that we could end
up getting more security on the border without more legal channels for
workers to go to the United States."
Republican Party officials said Tuesday that Bush planned to propose a
program that would make it easier for immigrants to work legally in the
United States, while at the same time stepping up security and enforcement
along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
They said the plan would include a new program of temporary work visas, as
well as an effort to grant legal status to some of the immigrants already
in the United States. Most government and private studies estimate that at
least 8 million immigrants live in the country illegally, more than half of
whom are Mexican.
"To do immigration reform, he is going to need Congress and it's going to
be a tough battle in an election year," Fernandez de Castro said, noting
that since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. politicians have been
more interested in closing borders than opening them. "But in 2000, the
Republicans lost a lot of votes by keeping their mouths shut on migration.
They won't make that mistake again."
Political analyst Gabriel Guerra called Bush's plan "very impressive if
it's really half of what they say it is.
"We have to wait and see what all the qualifications are, and how they
respond to all the reactions to this trial balloon," Guerra said. "I don't
see this as something feasible to get through Congress before the election."
Immigration reform was the talk of Mexico three years ago, when Bush and
Fox took office within a month of each other, and Bush's first foreign trip
was to Fox's ranch in February 2001. Both men portrayed themselves as
common-sense ranchers who wanted to improve the deadly situation along
their shared border. An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Mexicans every year
cross illegally into the United States looking for work. Thousands have
died trying, often by drowning or from exposure in the deserts and
mountains in their path.
For months after that initial meeting, officials in both governments worked
toward a scheme that would have created mechanisms to make immigration, in
Bush's words, more "safe, orderly and legal." Mexicans were excited that an
issue that affects millions of families seemed to be getting personal
attention from a U.S. president.
But by the time Fox made a state visit to Washington in early September
2001, it was clear that opposition in Congress meant there would be no
immediate breakthroughs. A week later, terrorists attacked New York and the
Pentagon, and immigration and Mexico dropped off Bush's list of priorities.
Then Fox's vocal opposition to using military force in Iraq, and his
refusal to vote with the United States at the U.N. Security Council, sent
relations into a deep freeze. Fox and Bush seemed to begin repairing the
damage when they met in Thailand at a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation summit in October.
Guerra said he saw the reported immigration plan as "a domestic political
initiative. It's not being done to try to salvage the relationship with Fox
and become good buddies again."
"Of course this is all political; he's trying to appeal to the Hispanic
vote, two-thirds of which is Democratic," said Rossana Fuentes, managing
editor of the Spanish-language edition of Foreign Affairs magazine.
Fuentes said the Mexican government should take a pragmatic, realistic
approach to Bush's proposals. She said Mexican officials should insist that
the United States also contribute development money to Mexico to help
alleviate the poverty and joblessness that leads to mass illegal immigration.
"Then we will have a safer continent," she said. "It's in both countries'
interest to develop Mexico."
5) Flaw in immigration law threatens deportation for Haitian refugees
By Ken Thomas
The Associated Press, December 24, 2003
NORTH MIAMI, Fla. (AP) -- Nearly a decade after leaving Haiti, Rigaud Rene
ends each day with a prayer. He gives thanks for his wife and young son and
their life in America - and prays that their time together will endure.
Rene, a former political activist on the island, faces deportation
following a lengthy legal battle with immigration authorities.
He says deportation would devastate his family, forcing him to take his 1
1/2-year-old American-born son to Haiti and leave behind his wife. He also
will lose a job that helps him send about $300 a month to support family
members in Haiti.
"Some people pray to Jesus for miracles," Rene said during a recent
interview. "They are not more special than me. So I hope that God can help
Rene, 41, is one of about 3,000 Haitian migrants ensnared in what activists
call a flaw in a 1998 law to help provide permanent residency - called
green cards - to illegal aliens from Haiti who lived in the United States
The bill didn't include waivers for Haitian migrants known as "airplane
refugees" who used forged documents to flee revengeful abuses and killings
in the impoverished island after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the
country's first freely elected leader, was deposed in a 1991 coup by Gen.
In Rene's case, immigration officials have maintained that the altered
documents make him ineligible to live here legally because he committed
fraud to enter the country.
But local activists contend that pro-Aristide Haitians arriving by air had
to use altered documents to escape possible harm in Haiti because the U.S.
Coast Guard was interdicting refugees who came by sea and returning them.
"All these people knew they were being looked for," said Steven Forester, a
senior policy advocate for the Haitian Women of Miami, a nonprofit
organization. "If you're being looked for by a regime that's chopping
people's faces off, you don't get into a boat."
Those who worked on the 1998 Haitian bill said the "airplane refugees" were
not supposed to be left out. Paul Virtue, who served as general counsel at
the former INS in 1998-99, said he thought "it was an oversight that they
"I don't think anyone really thought about the problem that people would
face who came by aircraft," Virtue said.
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration, declined
comment on Rene's case. But Dan Kane, a department spokesman, stressed that
every case is judged on the individual merits of an applicant's arguments.
Rene initially sought asylum when he first entered the United States in
1994 but was ordered deported by an immigration judge for using a forged
passport. His appeal was pending when Congress passed the 1998 law to help
Haitians. Rene sought a green card under the new law but his claim again
was rejected in July 2001.
He appealed the decision and Tuesday his case was sent back to be reheard
by an immigration judge. But Aristide's return to power has weakened his
argument in the past and his lawyer cautions that Rene could be deported at
"It's very desperate. They could pick him up today," said Clarel Cyriaque,
a Miami lawyer handling Rene's case.
Rene tried to get a green card through his wife, Sonie Octalus, who came
here in 1996 and is a legal permanent resident, but the family failed to
demonstrate deporting him would result in an "extreme hardship."
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat, introduced legislation in
October to expand the Haitian law to include those who arrived by air and
to prevent the government from deporting anyone with a pending application.
But Meek said it faces an uncertain future.
Meek said "the only real flicker of light" would come if the Bush
administration embraces Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's recent
suggestion of support for an amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Thousands of Haitians have applied for green cards under the 1998 Hatian
Refugee Immigration Fairness Act. But the majority of the cases have yet to
be adjudicated. A U.S. General Accounting Office report in October found
that more than 11,000 of the 37,851 applications have been approved.
Rene was an active Aristide supporter when the Haitian priest ran for
president in 1990. He led 300 Aristide supporters in his hometown of Le
Borgne and joined the pro-Aristide National Front for Change in Democracy.
He passed out leaflets and photos supporting Aristide.
A month after the coup, Rene said he was visited at his home by five
members of the military. The men, who were carrying revolvers, threatened
him and pushed him around, according to court documents. Rene then went
into hiding for two years, staying with a friend in the northern city of
"I was scared to go back to Le Borgne. If I go back to Le Borgne, anything
could happen," he recalled.
He fled Haiti for the Bahamas by boat in early 1994 and then used forged
documents to fly to Miami International Airport in May 1994, months before
Aristide was returned to power.
Rene has built a new life in America, learning English at a local Catholic
church, working as a deli clerk at a Miami Beach grocery store and taking
night classes to earn a GED degree.
Rene married Octalus in February 2001. Their son, Rikinson, was born the
following year. The family lives in a small one-bedroom apartment, where a
small bed sits in a cramped living room cooled by a white box fan.
If Rene is deported, the couple will send Rikinson with him because Octalus
doesn't drive, has no other relatives in the area and speaks limited
English. But the decision has been wrenching.
"If they send him to Haiti, it's like telling me I might as well go to
Haiti, too," Octalus said, through a translator in her native Creole.
The couple also wonders how they'll support their families in Haiti if Rene
is deported. Rene sends about $300 a month to support two other children,
two sisters and his mother; His wife sends $500 a month to six sisters on
the island, paying their rent, school tuition and clothing.
The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates Haitians living in
the U.S. send between $700 million to $800 million to Haiti every year.
Forester, of Haitian Women of Miami, worries about the impact on families
in Haiti who lose financial support when relatives are deported.
"If they really want to send a message not to flee, what they're doing by
deporting these people is causing the very migration outflow that they say
they're trying to prevent," Forester said.
A man of faith, Rene says his hopes have been reduced to prayer. Prayer, he
quips, is another part of the American experience.
"In God We Trust," Rene said with a smile. "That's what the Americans say."
6) Freehold sticking with plan to close work zone
By Clare Marie Celano
The Examiner (Allentown, N.J.), December 25, 2003
Representatives from an area citizens group fighting for immigrants’ rights
appeared at a Borough Council meeting in Freehold Borough for the second time
on Dec. 15.
This time Mayor Michael Wilson was in attendance, and as they say, "the
gloves were off."
Members of the Monmouth County Residents for Immigrants Rights came to
protest borough officials’ decision to close a so-called muster zone on Throckmorton
Street. The muster zone is due to close on Jan. 1.
The group’s members claim that shutting the area where day laborers are
picked up for work will deny them of the right to earn a living and provide for
their families. Some people who come to the muster zone to hook up with
employers are in the country illegally.
Virginia McGlone of Ocean Township, a member of the immigrants rights group,
once again asked municipal officials to delay their decision to close the
muster zone. She suggested that they create a task force to look into the issue
of day laborers. She asked that members of the community come together to
talk about the problem.
"We should reach out to every organization that has experience with day
laborers," McGlone said.
Gabrielle Jemma of Keansburg said she was a union organizer for more than 30
"Your notice closing the muster zone starts out by talking about the problems
like horn-blowing and loitering at the muster zone, but never mentioned the
fact that 49 immigrants spent the day cleaning up the muster zone," Jemma said.
She said when people from other parts of the county see what she called a
civil rights issue, they respond to it. Jemma said she believes the basis of
the order to close the muster zone was to reduce the Latino population in
After hearing the pleas of those who want the muster zone to stay open,
Wilson told the audience, "OK, I’m going to hit you right between the eyes with
this first. Then, later on, I’ll soften up a bit.
"How dare you tell me how to run my town? I’ve been mayor of this town for 18
years. I’ve been elected by the people of this town five times and 51 percent
of them think I’ve been doing a good job. I take umbrage at outsiders coming
here and telling us how to run Freehold Borough. I’m tired of letters calling
us racists," he said.
Wilson shared a personal sliver of his life and told those in attendance
that he adopted his daughter, Ashley, 16, from Colombia.
"But you know how I did it?" he asked. "I did it legally."
Wilson said Freehold Borough has tried to accommodate the immigrants who
have come to the town seeking a place to live and work.
"We stepped up to the plate five years ago. We tried to help our residents.
It didn’t work. We became a drop-off center," he said of the muster zone. "We’
re ready in Freehold Borough, but this should be a regional effort. The
muster zone will close on Jan. 1."
Wilson said borough and county officials will meet on Dec. 30 to discuss the
Councilman Kevin Coyne said he has been researching locations for a muster
zone outside of the borough. He mentioned Brookdale Community College in the
Lincroft section of Middletown as one possible location.
"It’s smack in the middle of the county and there is a large amount of work
there. You can get to any town in the county by bus from there. If the county
decides that this work force is so important to them, then they should
accommodate these workers," he said. "But every time we say the word ‘regional,’ we
Council President Sharon Shutzer said she resents being told the borough is
not doing enough to address the issue. She said she knows in her heart how much
time and effort has gone into the matter.
She then specifically addressed the members of the immigrants rights group
and said, "I would like to know which of you were around when these day laborers
were scrambling around in the woods because it’s the only place they could
find to sleep. I want to know which of you were with the fire department when
they risked their lives to go into an overcrowded place to save people’s lives.
Where were you when these people needed help all along? We’ve made a decision
and my vote stands."
The council also heard from someone who could see the muster zone issue from
another vantage point. Hal Rifkin of Manalapan has owned and operated a family
farm on Smithburg Road for years. Rifkin said he visits the muster zone at
least once a week to pick up day laborers.
Rifkin said he did not come to protest the closing of the muster zone, but
rather to advise the council of the importance of the muster zone to area
farmers and landscapers. He cited information he received from fellow farmers who
had picked up day laborers in Toms River at a hiring hall.
"There’s a fee to register and a fee to pick-up," he said. "I would have no
problem paying those fees."
Rifkin said he and every other farmer can produce food alone, but they can
not harvest it all by themselves.
"It’s too big an undertaking." he said. "In America, 95 percent of the food
harvested comes from Hispanic laborers. When all of you sit down to have a meal
it would do you well to remember this."
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