A thaw appears to be developing in a months-long dispute between Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Dist. 7) and six immigration rights activists, including two Essex County rabbis. However, like the recent unseasonably cool weather in the Garden State, the climate remains chilly.
On Feb. 5 the half-dozen activists staged a sit-in at the congressman’s Westfield’s office over Lance’s perceived lack of support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), and demanded that Lance fully support the program by a Feb. 8 deadline.
When the protesters refused to leave his office after its 5 p.m. closing time they were promptly taken into custody, charged with trespass, and released without bail. They pleaded not guilty and will be tried in Westfield Municipal Court on June 19.
Promulgated as an 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 in Lance’s district.
In September President Donald Trump signed an executive order to end DACA, a move supported by many of his fellow Republicans in the House and Senate.
Lance had taken the position that “President Obama exceeded his constitutional authority and disregarded existing law to implement his plan for undocumented immigrants,” even as the congressman pledged to “work closely with my colleagues and the administration to pass meaningful immigration reforms that will secure our borders, strengthen employment verification, and provide a workable path for ‘Dreamers’ with DACA status.”
Lance followed through on his pledge on May 9 as one of 19 Republicans to sign a discharge petition, a parliamentary procedure that will allow several immigration measures to be pulled from the committee stage and be voted on by the House. Limiting legal immigration, protecting U.S. borders, and allowing Dreamers to remain in the United States are among the four measures being discussed.
Lance is the only GOP member from New Jersey to sign the petition.
The motion needs 218 signatures to pass and is currently just three votes shy of support. As of press time 192 of 193 House Democrats had signed on to the measure (Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas is the lone holdout).
“It is past time we meet that task,” Lance told NJJN in an email.
In a blog post on T’ruah.org, which describes itself as the “Rabbinic Call for Human Rights” and “speaks to our commitment to placing rabbis and cantors at the vanguard of the Jewish human rights movement,” Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, one of the two rabbis arrested at the sit-in, praised Lance for signing the discharge petition.
“In early May he said yes to Dreamers while most of his Republican colleagues and the president continue to say no. He acted to bring forth legislation to the House floor to enable Dreamers to stay in America,” she wrote in a post about last week’s Torah portion, Shelach.
But the other rabbi at the sit-in, Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet in Montclair, seemed disappointed that Lance had to be prodded to do the right thing.
“Our intention was to make him turn his intentions into actions, which he had not done before we visited his office,” Tepperman said. “We wanted him to take a stand and he wasn’t willing to do that, actually.”
Lance emphatically denied this characterization. “This is just completely untrue,” Lance wrote in an email to NJJN. “We must finally pass an immigration plan that boosts security at our southern border, updates our immigration laws, and gives DACA recipients a pathway to legalization. There is a compromise to be had and I will continue to work in a bipartisan fashion to find an agreement that can be signed into law.”
The back and forth did not end there, as Tepperman believes Lance does not do enough to protect immigrants.
“Lance has said he supports the Dreamers, but he hasn’t always supported [a] ‘Clean Dream Act’” — a permanent, unqualified legislative solution to protect Dreamers — because he has favored “conditions that would impose limitations, such as preventing Dreamers’ family members from remaining in the United States and approving harsh deportation actions by immigration agents in separating families and deportations.
“There have been lots of conditions added on by Republicans,” the rabbi continued. “The least egregious is the wall,” Trump’s frequently promised but yet-to-be delivered barrier on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. But “more egregious” parts of some proposals, according to Tepperman, are that family members cannot apply for American citizenship or residency, and some of the bills being considered grant more money for hiring immigration agents.
To which Lance responded via email: “A ‘clean’ Dream Act is not realistic or workable. It doesn’t have the votes to pass in either chamber and the president has said he won’t sign it into law. Going that route does nothing for DACA recipients and may only encourage more illegal border crossings. Only a compromise plan where each side gets some of what they want will secure the votes in the House and Senate for passage.
“It’s time for a debate and a vote in the House of Representatives.”
Lance is running for re-election in November against Democrat Tom Malinowski, who has held national posts under the Obama and Clinton administrations, in what is expected to be a close race.