Immigrant Heritage Rally Draws Contrast Between NJ Population Growth and Meager Investments in Communities of Color
Immigrant, Social Justice, and Community Advocates Urged Trenton to Use Surplus to Invest in Communities Most Impacted by Economic and Social Consequences of the Pandemic
Trenton, NJ -- [June 22, 2022] -- New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice (NJAIJ), the state’s largest immigration coalition, convened an Immigrant Heritage Month Day of Action that rallied over 100 artists, activists, and advocates on the steps of the State House Annex.
June is immigrant heritage month as well as the time of year when the State budget negotiations reach their end. The rally drew a stark contrast between the size of New Jersey’s immigrant communities and their relatively small share of budget and policy priorities. Attendees and protestors filled out the speaker program by intermittently shouting slogans like, “Tell Trenton: Do More” and “Immigrants make, Trenton takes.” A plane bearing the banner “Tell Trenton, Immigrants Will Be Heard” soared over the Statehouse as the rally began (photo link)
”June is Immigrant Heritage Month. It's also budget month. Every year, New Jerseyans watch as lawmakers slice through our priorities as final negotiations get underway. We refuse to believe that the sacrifices our communities have made for this state have to be taken off the table. New Jersey is more diverse than it has ever been, the immigrant community cannot be reduced to a single line item or bill – especially during an unprecedented surplus and billions in federal aid still unspent. We are here today to take up space, both in the streets and in the budget,” said Amy Torres with New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.
"We ALL contribute to the economy of New Jersey through our work, from small businesses that hire folks to jobs that not everyone wants to do. And during times of crisis like this pandemic we as immigrant communities continued to work and continued to serve our communities. We need a New Jersey budget that is for ALL and recognizes us as essential workers," said Germania Hernandez of New Labor.
Coalition members, workers, and community organizers hailed from across the state and spanning organizations that included faith, legal support, labor, grassroots, and policy advocacy groups. Speakers covered topics from NJAIJ’s advocacy agenda (linked here), demanding greater protections against ICE, deep investments in economic justice programs, and greater visibility for immigrants through language access and data collection practices.
“New Jersey is a national leader in diversity, having one of the largest immigrant populations in America. New Jersey can also be a national model of how all our communities live together peacefully and productively. The Values Act will bring us together, making the safety and security of the Immigrant Trust Directive permanent, and shielding it from politics. It means that federal agents can’t come into our communities and separate families; that hardworking New Jerseyans don’t have to fear being taken away if they report exploitation by employers or landlords; that no one driving can be pulled over and end up not coming home to their kids that night. We remember what that was like before the Directive, and we won’t go back. The Values Act will keep us all going forward, and show the rest of the country the way. We are all neighbors and New Jerseyans — native-born, immigrant, citizen, resident, every color, age and gender — and this is how we look out for each other,” said Yaire Hernandez, a volunteer at Wind of the Spirit and a Montclair State University Student.
“On this day, we must recognize that immigration heritage is less about celebrating the struggle and more about recognizing the road ahead. The increasing assault on immigrants in recent years must be confronted by a renewed sense of commitment of immigrant rights organizations working creatively hand in hand with immigrant communities in the US and abroad,” said Serges Demefack with American Friends Services Committee (photo link).
According to Census Data, New Jersey’s immigrant community makes up roughly one quarter of the state population. The 2020 Census found that New Jersey is a population that is effectively half people of Color, a proportion that could actually be much higher given statements by the Federal Census Bureau that suggest vasts undercounts of Latino and Black populations and because of the grouping of Arab American, Middle East, and North African populations within the “white” racial category.
“Although Muslims are not new to America — the first Muslims were brought to America as slaves — we, along with many other communities of Color, continue to be misrepresented and underrepresented. Muslim American communities fall at the intersection of Black America, immigrant America, and working class America, yet Census data consistently undercounts and misrepresents our diversity. We are disappointed in the data aggregation surrounding our communities, which ultimately leads to a disproportionate share of state budget and policy priority being taken away, but we are hopeful in our power and numbers. We are proud to witness the impact of our sisters and brothers, and we will continue to fight for better representation, whether that’s in the many pockets of public life or Census data,” said Selaedin Maksut, Executive Director of CAIR-NJ (photo link).
“New Jersey is a home to many families with such diverse and rich cultures. Different communities may have different linguistic needs but still have a right to access all services offered in New Jersey. The New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children (NJCIC) strongly supports strengthening our communities through inclusive policies such as the Language Accessibility and the Data Disaggregation bills. We are also urging the New Jersey Legislature and the Administration to include budget initiatives that increased funding for programs supporting immigrant families and children. Investing in immigrant communities and communities of color is investing in the future of New Jersey,” said Lady Jimenez Torres, Policy Director- New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children
“New Jersey is a community of beautiful diversity, and immigrant children and families are invaluable and treasured members of our community. As such, the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) strongly supports strengthening of our state's language access laws to ensure that families with limited English proficiency have access to the information they need to be effective advocates for their children and families. Without language access, children and families with limited English proficiency will be left by the wayside, unable to secure the education, health, and human services to which they are entitled,” said Diana Autin, Executive Director, SPAN Parent Advocacy Network.
In the middle of the program, protestors cheered news of the passage of A3092, a data disaggregation bill, that was unanimously voted out of committee. Throughout the program, local artists and performers also contributed to the day with poetry, song, dance, and visual displays that highlighted the breadth, power, and diversity of New Jersey’s immigrant population.
“As an immigrant myself, born in Guyana, South America, I am strongly connected to the purpose of this work. This art work is meant to empower the voices of the people organizing to further elevate the experience of immigrants, undocumented persons, and other groups which for too long have remained, often, ignored. In order to impact change, voices must be HEARD. Heard by publicly elected officials. This work is bright, colorful, calling attention to the diversity of immigrants, and just how loud we are in unison, and chorus. We are in this space, in New Jersey, and our voices are important and only GROWING,” said Amrisa Niranjan, Guyanese-born artist and muralist (art link).
“Behind the bandana is my mother, a former farmworker and the inspiration behind all of the stories I want to tell. My mother, like many others, was a voice that was screaming for help at a toxic workplace but remained silent because of the fear of losing her job. This piece symbolizes the slow harvest of what she planted 22 years ago when we came to this country,” said Edgar Aquino Huerta, Community Organizer with CATA-The Farmworkers Support Committee, and Visual Artist (photo link) (art link).
“‘Immigration is Beautiful’ is a celebration of migrant women and the courage, determination, and resiliency that brought them across the border. Immigrant women have always been integral members of American society: they work across all industries, educate themselves, and pour passion and love into every part of life. I wanted to highlight the beauty of immigration through the beauty of migrant women and the love and light that they bring to America,” said Emma Demefack, Visual Artist and Intern with American Friends Service Committee (art link).
“For this piece I was aiming to create imagery centered on the immigrant experience and aspects of unity, power, joy and celebration found in this complex existence. I am using animals to represent social movements and a young protester with a bullhorn to represent the voice of dissent. Together, these elements are meant to compel the viewer to see the possibilities of united social movements and the power behind them,” said Layqa Nuna Yawar, Public Artist and Multidisciplinary Storyteller (art link).
“In a state as diverse as New Jersey, we have to realize that the children of immigrants like me are living in a melting pot. While they learn to traverse their deep rooted traditions from their immigrant parents with peers in current day contexts, it is very important for them to grow with a strong sense of self and belonging. Supporting diverse cultural programs and schools such as mine not only ensures that but also helps immigrant children and immigrant communities to learn about other cultures and traditions. This will only make New Jersey and its residents stronger and more educated on the diverse world we live in,” said Sukanya Mahadevan of Shishya School of Performing Arts (photo link).
New Jersey lawmakers’ final budget negotiations are still underway, and community advocates and lobbyists alike are vying for prioritization of their issues. During the rally, social justice advocates decried what they called a “scarcity mindset” that forces communities to pick and choose which investments are more deserving of inclusion. Advocates also took aim at the budget making process, calling for greater transparency and public participation, especially following an announcement of a tax holiday earlier in the day.
“Instead of a tax holiday that benefits New Jersey’s wealthiest residents, we should invest in working families like mine. I was an essential worker during the pandemic. My labor saved lives, but I’m still struggling to put food on the table and pay my bills. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, and providing hazard pay and funds for excluded workers are a better use of our dollars. People who put their lives at risk throughout the pandemic shouldn’t be going hungry, especially when New Jersey has billions in surplus,” said Banessa Quiroga, leader of Make the Road NJ from Elizabeth.
“The historic budget surplus and federal funds provide an unprecedented opportunity to enact deliberate strategies of inclusion to create a stronger economy. Centering the needs of people of color and immigrants, many of whom are essential workers, in the state budget is a crucial step in reducing racial disparities in economic and health outcomes, ensuring New Jersey is affordable for all. Lawmakers can proactively alleviate the affordability crisis by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, creating a state-level Child Tax Credit, reforming TANF, providing hazard pay, and ensuring no resident is excluded from relief from the pandemic,” said Nicole Rodriguez, President of New Jersey Policy Perspective.
“New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the country, and immigrant communities are an integral part of our state’s civic, economic, and cultural strength. The state budget must allocate necessary funding to provide relief for those who were excluded from federal COVID-19 aid, continue representation for detained immigrants facing deportation, and expand language access services. Funding these essential programs will move us toward a more inclusive and equitable New Jersey,” said Jim Sullivan, Deputy Policy Director, ACLU of New Jersey.
Performing and contributing artists include:
Layqa Nuna Yawar, Amrisa Niranjan, Emma Demefack, Edgar Aquino-Huerta, Los Reyes: Luis Benavides y su Mariachi, Aya Mustafa, Shishya School of Performing Arts
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