New Jersey by car almost always looks the same. Trees slip into strip malls and slip back into trees as you drive down suburban roads at fifty miles an hour. Drivers may be aware of their surroundings to the extent that they’ll watch for stoplights and pedestrians, but the backdrop of a routine drive can get blurrier with each circuit. Once this circuit wears grooves through a suburban drive, and the tree leaves blur into a solid green, there are no borders marking town lines or a change of scene. But Rosa is always watching for town signs. She notices every border.
Rosa doesn’t have a license, but she’s not new to the road; the grooves of her circuit have worn so deep that they’ve become ruts. She’s been driving for fifteen years, and doesn’t like to stray from her daily commute to clean houses in Princeton from her home in a town farther north. A couple times a week, she ventures to Edison to pick up her youngest son from school, and to Montgomery to take her middle son to Tae Kwon Do, but she hates it. She wouldn’t be so worried about driving if she could just take the bus, but suburban New Jersey is unkind to life dictated by public transport, especially when her routine spans multiple towns sprawled out across stretches of flat farmland and condo developments. A lot of buses only come on the hour, and the trains mostly run through the north of the state and along the coasts. She also wouldn’t be so worried if she could just get a license, but as an undocumented immigrant, she can’t get one in New Jersey.
So every day, with the signs and stoplights in sharp focus, Rosa drives at the precise speed limit—a guaranteed way to get tailgated. But Rosa never speeds. If police officers were to pull her over, a number of things could happen. The officer might look up her name in a database and check whether she had been charged with being in the country without documentation. They might notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency that handles deportation. The officer might comply with ICE’s detainer request and hold Rosa in the municipal jail. The officer might also, though, let Rosa go free; a detainer request is just a request, not an order. The officer might never even look up Rosa’s name in the first place. Every town in New Jersey is different; so whenever Rosa drives, she leaves twenty minutes early.
Some towns have their own official police policies about asking an immigrant for their status. Some counties sign the 287(g) agreement with ICE that deputizes their police force as immigration officers. Some towns don’t necessarily have anything official written down, but they have a reputation that puts undocumented immigrants on edge. The state recognizes that public safety and immigration enforcement don’t mix, and the 2007 Attorney General Directive orders local officers to not ask people about their legal status when they approach the police for help or to report a crime. But the directive leaves considerable room for towns to forge their own policies, and for officers to use their discretion case-by-case. Depending on the town where Rosa could be pulled over, local police can take control of Rosa’s fate.
On her daily twenty-minute commute from Franklin Township, there’s one town whose border Rosa is relieved to cross. In this town, she finally can let her guard down, because the police are there to protect her. She watches for the sign on Route 27: Entering Township of Princeton.
The only reason Elisa Neira doesn’t like to call Princeton a sanctuary city is that she doesn’t want to give undocumented immigrants a false sense of security, but she doesn’t take the label “a welcoming town” lightly. Neira, the former Executive Director of the Human Services Department, is at the heart of a web of support for immigrants that branches out through the town. Neira calls her department a hub: they work with the police department and community groups and religious organizations and schools. The individual members of the Human Services Commission have their hands in every corner of the town: they are University professors, volunteers, and mentors. In 2013, the Princeton Police Department established a directive that prohibits police officers from asking someone their legal status unless state law absolutely obliges them. This takes away any potential for an individual officer to use their discretion to target drivers based on race: getting pulled over in Princeton for speeding means the driver gets a ticket, whether they’re undocumented or not, but nothing more. “We can’t build a wall around Princeton and not allow ICE to come,” Neira said. But short of that, the town is doing everything it can.
Other towns are also trying to mark their borders on the New Jersey map as spaces where immigrants are welcome, but it’s more difficult to draw a hard line without a web of town-wide support. In Freehold Borough, about thirty minutes from Princeton, Rita Dentino has been building up a lot of her town’s protective walls herself as the director of Casa Freehold, an immigration advocacy organization. Freehold Borough is a two-square-mile patch of land in the middle of Freehold Township in Monmouth County, one of four New Jersey counties to sign the 287(g) agreement with ICE that allows local police officers to carry out certain duties of immigration officers themselves. Thirty percent of the Borough’s twelve thousand residents are immigrants, and everyone’s packed into two square miles. Not everyone is on Dentino’s side.
For the last fourteen years, Casa Freehold has been one of the main engines in town—with Dentino being one of the main engines running it—to build bridges between the immigrant half and the other half in town. She’s made progress, but only after a career of pushing her welcoming philosophy on the town and county and being pushed back over and over again. She said Freehold had a mayor of twenty-five years who ran unopposed for re-election in 2003 on the platform that he would finally get rid of immigrants. She talked about times that policemen wouldn’t pull her over driving alone but would pull her over when she turned back around and had an immigrant in the passenger seat. “If they want to stop you, they’ll always find a reason for stopping you,” Dentino said. “And a lot of times, most of the time, it’ll just be one person’s word versus another person’s word.”
Dentino said the relationship between the Borough police and the immigrant community has improved over time: two years ago, she worked with a Borough police officer to gather immigrants at Casa Freehold and ease their fears about rumors of ICE raids, and assure them that the police department supported and embraced the Latino community. But in Freehold Township, which surrounds the Borough on all sides, Dentino thinks that things haven’t yet changed for the better—she said that the Township police are still racist. Then she listed nearby towns where Freehold residents frequently go—Manalapan, Marlboro, Howell, Jackson—where she expects that the police are probably pretty similar. At the very least, against the hostile backdrop of a county that has taken on the duties of ICE, Dentino has been able to help carve out a tiny pocket of protection in Freehold Borough.
Even in Princeton, with its committees and commissions and directives in support of its undocumented community, people are afraid. November 28 was the day of Princeton’s rally for a “Clean Dream Act” to protect immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors. Early that morning, ICE had raided two homes just a few blocks from Hinds Plaza, where the marchers were planning to meet at noon.
Fifteen minutes before twelve, Ross Wishnick, the Chair of the Human Services Commission, was setting up along with a few other organizers. He and another organizer were pinning down some posters before the wind took them, when he noticed two men in suit jackets, standing at the edge of the plaza and chatting. Wishnick studied the two men, then glanced back toward the woman also organizing the rally next to him.
“How about those two?” he asked her quietly.
She glanced over Wishnick’s shoulder at the men. “The guy on the right doesn’t look like he could be,” she said. They were wondering if the two men could be ICE officers in plain clothes.
“That’s it, you can imagine everything now,” the woman said, turning her eyes back towards Wishnick. “You can let your mind go—”
At noon, Hinds Plaza began to fill up with people from every corner of the town—from the schools, the police department, the local government, the churches. With so many members of Princeton’s network of immigrant protection gathered in one place, one question bubbled up more than once from the chatter of the crowd: Did you hear about the raid this morning?
Liliana Morenilla bounced between her friends and colleagues with considerable energy and a bright smile given the morning she’d just had. She had woken up to the sound of her phone ringing at 5 AM. She let the first call go. She thought it had been a mistake. Then her phone rang again, and again—five calls in a row, and it was barely 5:30 AM. Something was going on. She picked up the phone and heard her friend, an undocumented immigrant and a mother, at the other end: “ICE is here! ICE is here!”
Morenilla threw on clothes and was outside her friend’s house by 5:40 AM. The four ICE officers wouldn’t let her inside to talk to them. She said she took out her phone and started filming, but that an ICE officer gave her a threat: if she didn’t delete that video, everyone inside that house would be deported. She deleted it.
In hindsight, she knows she shouldn’t have deleted the video. “Everyone tells you that you shouldn’t,” she said. But in the moment, she was intimidated. “They actually pushed me lightly with their guns.” Morenilla could only wonder how vulnerable the family, who mostly spoke Spanish only, must have felt around these ICE officers intimidating her in English. After more than two hours outside the house—Morenilla can’t even remember how all that time passed, just that everybody was crying—the ICE officers took two fathers away. She could finally step into the house around 8:00 AM.
Four hours later, she was glad to be one figure among many crowding Hinds Plaza, all standing in solidarity for the family she saw torn apart that morning just blocks away. But even in Princeton, where the effort to protect immigrants spreads wide through the community and deep into their philosophy, the town can’t stop ICE from coming in. ICE raided three homes in total that day; four people were deported.
Liliana Morenilla is the liaison between bilingual parents at Princeton schools and Human Services; her job is about trust, gaining the trust of Hispanic parents and building their trust in the town. Morenilla works with these two fathers’ children, who are still shaken by nightmares months later, and all the other families and kids in the school. The kids have post-traumatic stress to an extent she’s never seen in her ten years at Princeton schools: a kid in pre-K doing show-and-tell said, “When I get on the bus, I don’t know if my mom is going to pick me up when I get back, because this very bad president is going to ask my mommy to go back to Guatemala.” She said kids in elementary school are losing weight, they have stomach aches, they’re in therapy; that all the psychologist offices in Princeton are packed with kids; that kids in high school have attempted suicide. She said the adults don’t go to the supermarkets as much anymore, they don’t drive as much anymore, they don’t like to go out at night.
“They don’t feel safe at all,” Morenilla explained. “But what they do feel is the sense of community. I think they feel protected.” Undocumented immigrants cannot find safety, even within the towns that try to help them; but their neighbors in town still try to protect them in whatever borders they can draw.
During the rally, Leticia Fraga, a Town Councilor, pointed across Hinds Plaza to someone holding a sign. It’s divided into three horizontal stripes like a flag, green on top of blue on top of yellow. The same phrase was written in white on each stripe, in Spanish at the top, in English in the middle, and in Arabic on the bottom: No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor. “For them, it’s something very meaningful. They feel that sign,” Fraga said. An undocumented immigrant, who works as a landscaper, told Fraga that he feels relieved when he goes to work on a lawn with that sign on display. “For us, it’s symbolism. For them, it really means they feel safe.”
In Freehold Borough, too, ICE is cornering Dentino into her two square miles, deporting more people than ever and overwhelming Casa Freehold with work. Dentino has been coming in seven days a week to a desk covered with papers and a jumbo Wawa iced coffee. She is trying to keep up. But undocumented immigrants have been coming in on the days that Casa Freehold is supposed to be closed. On one recent Saturday afternoon, a Mexican man and a Puerto Rican woman strolled in through the front door and through the inside lobby door that led to Dentino’s desk. She scheduled an appointment with them for Monday. After they left, she locked the front door behind them and turned back towards the inside wall, where you can see Dentino’s office through the welcome window—a square of light in the dark lobby, lit only by the cloudy sky outside—and the wooden door that leads into her office and the rest of Casa Freehold. She nodded at a piece of printer paper taped to the door. It was a no-frills sign that she had taped on the door with one piece in each corner. “Privado: Voluntarios, Clientes y Miembros Solamente,” it said at the top. “Private: Volunteers, Clients, and Members Only,” it said at the bottom.
“Before, we always kept that door open. Me, I’m a door-wide-open kind of person,” Dentino laughed. “But supposedly, if the police or ICE comes, they’re not supposed to just go in the door.” She shuffled back inside to the half-room behind the welcome window, which had just enough space for her desk, a computer monitor and a few file cabinets all at arm’s reach. This area should be as private as someone’s home—but homes have been violated before.
These pockets of security by a lawn sign or behind a closed door might let undocumented immigrants finally breathe a sigh of relief, surrounded at last by borders meant to protect them. But their relief can only be brief: nobody can live their whole lives hiding behind a sign, or even in the confines of a single town.
“Most people have to cross town lines daily,” Dentino said, “It’s really difficult in Monmouth County—or in New Jersey in general—to function in a way that you just stay in one town all the time.” In the case of Freehold Borough, it’s a matter of practicality: you can’t buy clothes or most groceries without going into the Township. Princeton fits more places to work and eat and shop in its eighteen square miles, but there aren’t many affordable places to live. Large groups of immigrants often share a single cramped room, and hold onto it even if it’s crumbling apart. They can’t be sure they’ll find another. Housing in Princeton costs, on average, more than four times the average cost of housing in the United States; Trenton, in comparison, is below the national average. Trenton is a thirty-minute drive from Princeton—cutting through Lawrenceville, whose police officers have a reputation for pulling over immigrants—or an inconvenient bus ride that can last over an hour, but Princeton’s lack of affordable housing pushes many of its immigrant workers to live in Trenton and commute. Despite Freehold’s and Princeton’s best efforts to push fear out of their towns and keep undocumented immigrants safe inside their borders, people can’t just live their lives in the confines of one town. That’s not how New Jersey works, with its towns that slip into trees back into towns. And it’s not how people work.
A life lived in such a careful loop of routine might be the safest route possible for undocumented immigrants, but it might not be the happiest. “My life has not been very interesting,” Rosa reflected, laughing a bit sadly. She’s never taken her kids on vacation, to another state, to another country—driving or flying would be too much of a risk. She’s pulled across town borders daily, stuck in a loop. “You live in your own little world. You never go nowhere.”