New N.J. law swirls immigration debate
Sunday, October 21, 2007
BY EVA LOAYZA ... xml&coll=5

TRENTON -- A new law that created stricter penalties for New Jersey residents who don't register their cars has stoked debate over illegal immigration again, with many immigration advocates questioning whether the legislation is intended to weed out illegal immigrants.

Those who helped create the law say its purpose has nothing to do with illegal immigration. It's in tent is to try to reclaim limited parking spaces from people who have cars registered out of the state, and get a grip on those driving unlicensed and uninsured, supporters say. That many of those driver are immigrants, some here illegally, is a different problem, they say.

Charles Thomas, president of the Villa Park Civic Association, said he is one of many Villa Park residents who don't like illegal im migrants living in their neighborhood. But that is not why they wanted the law passed, said Thomas.

"It is deeper than illegal immi gration," said Thomas.

Thomas said their concern is with the number of out-of-state registered cars taking up spaces in neighborhoods already struggling with limited parking. For instance, he said a house was rented on Cen tennial Avenue. Days later, there were nine cars with Pennsylvania plates parked in front of the house. Attempts to talk to the tenants there were ignored, he said. They've also had few accidents involving cars with out-of-state plates that were uninsured or underinsured. "They are breaking the law outright and inconveniencing the neighbors in the area," said Thomas.

But Juan Martinez, of People for the Revitalization of the South Ward, said the law is an attempt by people unwilling to accept the changes in their neighborhood to get rid of the undocumented. "They are looking at the law to fix it," said Martinez. "They want them out. They don't understand: You move one out, but you may get 10 more."

The previous law required residents to register their cars within 60 days of moving into the state. It allowed for minor fines. The new law stiffens those penalties. It carries a fine of up to $250 for a first offense and not more than $500 for each subsequent offense. It also re quires a vehicle be impounded for a minimum of 96 hours following the third or greater violation, and that it only be released to its owner after proof of registration is shown and all fines paid. The fines and registration must be paid within 30 days of the vehicle being im pounded or it will be sold at auction.

Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Lawrence, who sponsored the bill, said she heard from Villa Park and other civic groups in the city, as well as Lawrence officials about problems with cars registered out-of-state. Her constituents were offended they were paying insurance in New Jersey, but could not get a parking space, said Turner.

Turner said the law targets people who are skirting the law to save money.

"We all have to play by the same rules," said the senator, who is up for re-election. "Nobody wants to pay more to register and insure their cars in New Jersey, but if you live (here), you have to have a New Jersey license, register (and insure) your car (here). If we all went to Pennsylvania, if we all did that, I don't know what kind of state we would have."

Maria Juega, chairwoman of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, based in Princeton, wishes it was that simple. Juega said many immigrants are unable to obtain licenses in New Jersey because they cannot meet the six points of identification re quired by the state Motor Vehicle Commission. It is even more diffi cult for those who are not American citizens who have to provide additional documentation proving they are here legally, said Juega.

"They're attempting to comply and drive as legally as they can, but we're closing the door on them. We do not let them register a car unless they have a license, without one they cannot get insurance. It's a vicious cycle," she said.

Turner said she has met with Latino leaders who have expressed concerns about the need for people to get to and from work. Turner said those unable to obtain a license in New Jersey can do what she suggests for people who have had their licenses revoked: use public transportation, taxis or carpool. It is better than breaking the law, she said.

"It's a privilege, not a right," said Turner.

Juega said the previous law was not being enforced because it was difficult to prove how long someone had lived in the state. She did not see how the new law would be any different. She wondered if police plan to stop every car with out-of- state plates, which to her would be a waste of resources. "Doesn't the Trenton police have better things to do?," she asked. Juega did not see how the new law could be enforced without using racial profil ing.

"There will be some cops who will use this tool to harass," said Juega.

Mayor Douglas H. Palmer said Police Director Joseph Santiago is working on a policy detailing how city police will enforce the new law, as well as how to deal with a mandate from the state Attorney General that state and local officers notify federal authorities when they have reason to believe a suspect is in the country illegally. The policy will address enforcement so that it's clear to officers and residents, "but we're not ICE agents either," said Palmer. "I don't think cops will be driving around the city checking license plates and putting time stamps to see how long they (have been in the state)."

Palmer said the law is a good one. Some might interpret it as anti-immigrant, but people must play by the rules, he said. It is up to the federal government to set the national policies that will allow everyone to play by the rules, he said.

Juega said these are the people who are opening businesses, buying homes and contributing to the revitalization of the city. They are needed in Trenton and throughout New Jersey, which has lost population, said Juega. "Why do we want to keep them out, why do we want to make their life more difficult,?" she asked. "We're shooting ourselves in the foot."

Thomas has little sympathy. "If you can't get a registration in New Jersey then there's a reason for it. That's another concern of ours. Why can't you get a registration in New Jersey," said Thomas. "If they can't register a vehicle in New Jersey, I have no sympathy for them. I'm sorry, and most people in this area feel that way."

Thomas enjoys the fact that he lives in a dynamic and diverse neighborhood. But those who are here illegally should go back home, and "do it the right way like my ancestors did," he said.

Martinez has reached out to some of the civic associations about workshops he hopes will educate both sides about the cul tures of the newcomers and the laws of this country. He admits there are problems with some im migrants who think what was ac ceptable back home is appropriate here, but he thinks that can be resolved with education.

Palmer also wants to talk with people on both sides of the issue to find common ground.

"We need more dialogue in Trenton. We have to understand our city is changing in a lot of ways, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," said Palmer. "We can't allow this issue to pit neighbor against neighbor."

Contact Eva Loayza at eloay or (609) 989-5717.

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