Two Essex Country rabbis, two other N.J. clergy, and a pair of immigration rights activists are facing charges of defiant trespassing after a sit-in at the Westfield office of Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Dist. 7). The arrests took place after a rally sponsored by the Jewish Labor Committee, Make the Road New Jersey, Faith in New Jersey, and Bend the Arc Jewish Action.
They had come there on Feb. 5 to demand that Lance fully support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) by the Feb. 8 deadline for Congress to pass a budget. Established via Executive Order by former President Barack Obama, DACA has allowed some 800,000 illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children — informally referred to as “Dreamers” — to remain in the country and work, attend school, or serve in the military. An estimated 22,000 Dreamers live in New Jersey, 4,000 of whom live in Lance’s district, according to a press release by Faith in New Jersey, a PICO National Network organization.
President Donald Trump rescinded the order in September. He has said he will oppose any legislation Congress proposes to extend DACA beyond March 5, when it is set to expire, if it is not combined with a multi-billion appropriation to wall off the Mexican border.
The activists, which included Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet in Montclair and Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, sat cross-legged on the floor of a reception area where they prayed and sang freedom songs. When the congressman’s staff informed them the office would close at 5 p.m., Tepperman “made it clear that we weren’t leaving,” said Dantowitz.
Shortly thereafter the staff called the Westfield police. They handcuffed the demonstrators behind their backs when they arrived, and led them into a patrol wagon. The six did not offer resistance and they said the officers were not aggressive.
“The police were very polite to us,” said Dantowitz of her first arrest.
The activists were charged and released without bail. They will be arraigned in Westfield Township Municipal Court on Feb. 20.
Along with the rabbis, two Montclair ministers, the Rev. Ann Ralosky and her associate pastor John Rogers of the First Congregational Church, were arrested. Two lay activists, Kristin Peck of Summit and Nedia Morsy, an organizer at Make the Road New Jersey, an immigrant rights organization based in Elizabeth, were also taken into custody.
What motivated the rabbis and many others who marched and chanted outside Lance’s district office on East North Avenue was a sense of personal connection with the young immigrants who wish to remain on American soil. Most of Tepperman’s family came to America from an area near where the borders of Russia, the Ukraine, and Moldova converge.
“My grandfather came here as an unaccompanied minor at age 13, and his 15-year-old sister had to pay to be smuggled across the border to board a ship in 1913,” Tepperman told NJJN before the rally began. Because of his heritage, the rabbi has often thought about “the danger and the fear” of what his ancestors must have felt to resort to taking “that much of a risk to send their children to the U.S.”
“My own family is safe by dint of the risks that were taken by people of previous generations,” he said. “Immigrants now who are facing poverty and injustice and persecution are hoping that America can be what it has always been, a beacon to people in need.”
Dantowitz said her great-grandparents and grandmother fled from pogroms in Russia in search of better lives in America. “It hasn’t always been easy to get here,” she said. “But this was the only home they knew.”
Arieh Lebowitz, associate director of the Jewish Labor Committee, told NJJN that three of his four grandparents fled from anti-Semitism on the Czech-Hungarian border. A fourth came from Poland. “These Dreamers’ parents came here for a better life for themselves and their families, just like my grandparents did,” said Lebowitz, who lives in West Orange. “They should be allowed to stay.”
Prior to the arrests, demonstrators marched in a fenced-off locale outside Lance’s office for two hours, with some stopping to address the crowd.
Noting that the Jewish people know what it is to be slaves and then exiles — a reference to the Exodus story — Dantowitz told the audience “as people who care for the resident stranger we stand up for people in need.”
Using a bullhorn, one Dreamer said her resident status will expire in August, three months after she graduates from college. “My faith is getting low, but being around here today feel there really is hope.”
Said another woman, also a Dreamer, “Some people may not know what it’s like to have your future toyed with and used as a political strategy and having a future that can be taken away from you the very next day. We love this country enough to have our hearts broken by this country every day, but we cannot continue to live like this.”
Imam Saffet Catovic, the Muslim chaplain at Drew University, told the crowd when his grandparents came to America they saw the sign on the Statue of Liberty about welcoming “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They entered through Ellis Island without their papers in order, and yet they helped to make America the land that it is today.”
Immigration rights activists, are calling for a “clean DACA bill” —legislation not tied to additional restrictions on immigration — that will allow Dreamers to remain in the U.S.
A day after the demonstration, John Byers, Lance’s press secretary, told NJJN the congressman has supported a clean DACA bill for some time, but that is not a popular position in his party. “Could that bill pass? Probably not,” Byers said. “Because Republicans are in the majority in the House and Senate the bill will also have to address some elements of border security.”