Confronting Nativists in the Jersey Suburbs

Marty Kirchner Apr 30, 2013

BERGENFIELD, New Jersey — Raynaldo gets up every morning at 6:00 a.m. to catch a bus going 12 miles from West New York, N.J. to an alleyway behind a police station on the edge of Bergenfield. By 7:30 a.m. he finds himself alongside other recent immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico hoping a construction contractor, homeowner, or small business owner will drive up and offer a job for the day. Work has been hard to find since the collapse of the housing market in 2007. But the United Patriots of America have not.

Every Saturday morning for the past seven years, the UPA — which models itself after the Arizona-based Minuteman Project — has been holding rallies in Dumont, a neighboring borough just across the street from the hiring site where Raynaldo and others gather. As many as 15 UPA members regularly assemble at these rallies. They wave U.S. and Arizona flags, carry signs that scapegoat immigrants for the country's economic crisis and record video of immigrants seeking work and the employers who hire them. Local police regularly drive through the area and issue tickets to any day laborers found standing outside the city-designated hiring site.

"I don't like the protesters because they always see us as not producing value, but we produce a lot of value for this country economically," says Raynaldo. "If there were no day laborers, or no immigrants then the county's economy would go down."

"The image I have is of what America looked like in the 1960s in the South," added Jean Gratien, an immigrant from Rwanda who volunteers with a group that provides English lessons, coffee and sandwiches to the day laborers.


Bergenfield is a suburb of 26,000 people located ten miles outside New York City. Whites are a slim majority of the borough's residents. Rapidly growing Asian and Hispanic populations have helped reverse decades of population decline in Bergenfield and the surrounding area while stoking the concerns of some locals about Bergen County's changing complexion.

"You have a lot of the population that is really aging," explains Bonnie Strain, a resident in Dumont. "A lot of these workers — the ones I spoke to the other day — are busy doing additions, updating in people's houses."

The tense stand-off that has been unfolding on the edge of Bergenfield for much of the past decade is emblematic of national trends that have made smaller communities like this one central to the struggle over the future of the United States' 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Since the 1990s, new immigrants, often following jobs in construction and the food industry, have been settling in growing numbers in suburban cities and rural towns, as well as across the South and Southwest. The effect was jarring for many whites who were accustomed to living alongside people who looked and spoke like they did.

When longtime anti-immigrant groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) used the post-9/11 backlash against foreigners to launch attacks on immigrants, their nativist rhetoric fell on fertile ground. In late 2005, House Republicans pushed legislation, known as the Sensenbrenner Bill, that would have made it a felony — as opposed to a civil violation — to reside in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant or to hire or assist one. The draconian measure sparked a massive response from immigrant communities across the nation. In the spring of 2006, a rolling series of protests that culminated on May Day saw an estimated 3 to 5 million people take to the streets in over 160 cities and towns in the largest series of mass demonstrations in U.S. history.


The Sensenbrenner Bill was dropped, but the mass mobilizations of 2006 soon turned out to be a high water mark for the immigrant rights movement. A surge in military-style workplace and predawn home raids conducted under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security drove many undocumented immigrants back into the shadows.

As author Juan Gonzá‡lez writes in Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, it was "the most extensive government campaign of roundups and deportations since the days of Operation Wetback [in the 1950s]. Nearly 900,000 people were deported by ICE from 2006 to 2008 — nearly three times the number removed from 2001 to 2003."

Following the defeat of the Sensenbrenner Bill in 2006, and with the onset of the Great Recession, conservative towns and cities throughout the country — with the support of the Bush administration — began to activate 287(g), a program that trains and deputizes local police officers to act as immigration agents and create an immigration dragnet. Later, the Obama administration would implement a 50-state roll out of Secure Communities, a program that relies on biometric identification technology that allows local police to check the fingerprints of arrested persons against FBI and Homeland Security databases.

Other localities pushed further. Just weeks after the 2006 May Day protests, anti-immigrant activists in San Bernardino, California, a suburb outside of Los Angeles, began a petition drive calling for a city ordinance to restrict the employment and housing options of undocumented immigrants. With help from FAIR, similarly worded ordinances began appearing in places like Hazelton, Pennsylvania, Valley Park, Missouri, Farmers Branch, Texas and Riverside, New Jersey — obscure towns and suburban cities with conservative local governments that had experienced sharp increases of new immigrants over the previous two decades.

In the same way that angry whites initiated local battles against mandatory school busing in the 1970s that provided fodder for a larger post-civil rights era backlash, this wave of local anti-immigrant initiatives had an outsized impact as Washington-based politicians raced to stay ahead of public support for stricter, more punitive policies.

Meanwhile, in Bogota, New Jersey, five miles south of Bergenfield, conservative mayor Steve Lonegan hosted a town hall meeting at the height of the 2006 marches that featured speakers from UPA, New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control, and a national official from FAIR. A petition drive in Bergenfield calling for a citywide vote on 287(g) subsequently failed to gain enough signatures. But in 2007, the New Jersey Attorney General issued a directive saying that local law enforcement should inquire about a person's immigration status upon arrest for a serious crime. The UPA's weekly effort to intimidate day laborers in Bergenfield that began shortly after the 2006 mass protests continues to this day. But it is something of an outlier now compared to 2010, when the extreme nativist movement saw its peak with 319 similar groups active around the country.

Since then, says Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, "most of the energy that once animated the anti-immigrant movement… moved into the political mainstream, where Republicans and Tea Partiers have competed with one another to craft ever-harsher nativist laws." These state and local laws and federal enforcement programs have defined immigration policy for the country. They shape the terms of the current debate over immigration reform in Congress.

"I think it is important to recognize that protests and attacks on day laborers and the attempts, both legislative and grassroots, to limit their access to paying jobs is part of a larger effort to limit the ability for all immigrants, both documented and undocumented, to seek work," says Aaron Flanagan of the Center for New Community. "It is a material manifestation of the doctrine of self-deportation, or attrition through enforcement."


In 2007, a coalition of anti-racist, pro-immigrant and socialist groups from New Jersey and New York began to hold counter-protests against the UPA. At the time, spirited rallies of as many as 100 people took place.

"When there are organizations that want to defend the rights of immigrants it gives me a great feeling that we are not alone, that there are people who are not racist, who are on our side. It is a great motivation to continue and persevere," says Raynaldo.

Unfortunately, the momentum to support the day laborers has waned over the years while the UPA has continued its weekly protests. On March 2, nine members of the Independent Workers' Movement, a New York City-based network of day laborers, domestic workers and street vendors, joined over 30 day laborers in Bergenfield in a lively protest against the continued presence of UPA.

Such events bolster the morale of embattled day laborers. They also send a message to area residents that immigrant bashing is misguided and not worthy of their support, which is why these kinds of visible solidarity actions need to become much more common. Day laborers in Bergenfield have also begun meeting with IWM and are organizing to finally end the harassment they face from UPA.

The counter-mobilization against immigrant rights feeds off fear and ignorance and is centered in state and local areas outside of urban strongholds like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. This often unfamiliar terrain, the home turf of anti-immigrant forces, is where immigrant rights supporters need to be going on the offensive and contesting right-wing narratives. Only by changing hearts and minds at the grassroots level and isolating far-right nativists can we begin to shift the political establishment's fixation away from punishment and toward a more humane approach to immigration reform.

Marty Kirchner is a member of the Independent Workers' Movement.

For more, see:

Shaping the U.S. of the 21st Century, by Juan González

Dreaming Out Loud, by Michael Gould-Wartofsky

Fighting for a Place to Call Home, by Michael Gould-Wartofsky

A Day Laborer Says, ‘We Deserve the Chance to Become Full Members of the Society We Contribute to Every Day,’ by Robert Meneses

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