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For a Town that Made a Mistake, Immigration Reform Might Speed Revival

November 24, 2009 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Photo by Timetrax23

Monday evening, the New Jersey Immigration Coalition and St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Riverside, New Jersey, hosted a vigil in that town to support immigration reform and the town’s ongoing efforts to emerge from a period of xenophobia that peaked in the passage of an anti-immigrant ordinance in July 2006.  Passage of the ordinance led to a chain of events that has had devastating economic consequences for the town.


In July 2006, the town Council passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, which made it illegal for local businesses to hire immigrants who could not prove they were in the country legally.  The ordinance also made it illegal for landlords to rent to undocumented immigrants.  Fines started at $1,000 for a first time offense.  Business owners could also lose their business permit.


The effects of the ordinance were immediate.  Immigrants left.  Businesses closed and storefronts were boarded up. Legal challenges prevent the law from ever going into effect, and they were expensive.  According to this New York Times article, 


Riverside … has already spent $82,000 defending its ordinance, and it risked having to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees if it lost in court. The legal battle forced the town to delay road paving projects, the purchase of a dump truck and repairs to town hall, officials said.


Prior to enactment of the ordinance, Riverside was experiencing a revival, with an influx of immigrants, mainly from Brazil and Ecuador, who opened and patronized many businesses in a downtown that had experienced a long decline after local textile mills shuttered in the middle of the 1900s.  With a single rash act, town politicians reversed the city’s gains.


In September of 2007, the ordinance was rescinded.  Lesson learned.  The town launched a series of efforts to repair relations with the immigrant community.  Last year, David Verduin, President of the Riverside Coalition of Business Owners and Landlords, offered his insights. He traveled to Long Island to make a presentation at a panel discussion organized by Long Island Wins.  The panel was titled, “Don't Make Our Mistakes: Lessons from Riverside, New Jersey in the Costs of Attacking Immigrants.” 


The activists who gathered on Monday called for comprehensive immigration reform.  According to the Burlington County (New Jersey) Times, the Rev. Angelo Amaral of St. Peter's Church believes that immigration reform would help bring people back to Riverside.


It has been the lack of reform that is at the heart of Riverside’s problems.  As Marlene Lao-Collins, Director for Social Concerns for the New Jersey Catholic Conference, pointed out,


"The lack of reform has had a negative impact on a local level. That's caused a lot of consternation among folks and they sometimes feel fearful and they aren't able to live within the fullness of a community."


The broken immigration system is a catalyst for fear—not just in the immigrant community, but among established residents who see their community changing, and are susceptible to the xenophobes who like to use the word ILLEGAL as a broad brush to paint the entire immigrant community. 


The failure of Congress to act to fix our immigration system has created a situation in which no one appears to be in charge, and this has provided opportunities for xenophobes to step in and pressure local politicians to enact their own immigration policies—policies which communities soon come to regret.


The immigration system has to be fixed at the national level, and that is the job of Congress.  The sooner they get down to work, the sooner communities like Riverside will be able to heal.

Photo by Timetrax23

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