WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council unanimously approved a resolution that supports the reinstatement of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act at its Jan. 23 meeting, in response to the federal Department of Homeland Security’s repeal of the program.
DACA protects immigrants who entered the United States illegally as minors from deportation and makes them eligible to work legally. The council’s decision came after the West Orange Board of Education approved a similar resolution at its Jan. 8 meeting.
Several residents were at the meeting to speak in support of the resolution, including Elizabeth Redwine, a member of local action group Essex Rising, who asked that council members support those in the community who would benefit from DACA, also known as “Dreamers.”
“If we’re going to be a community that’s devoted to keeping our children safe, then I think we have to pass this resolution in support of Dreamers and be a town that speaks up for our constituents and our families and children … who are working so hard every day,” Redwine said. “We can be a town that stands up for the children in our community — all of the children in our community. We will be a better town is we pass resolutions like this.”
Resident Alison Ullrich mentioned diversity and inclusiveness as being reasons that people want to move into West Orange, and said the council should support those reasons by passing the resolution.
“We talk about moving here and being a part of a diverse community and I think we need to stand behind those words and support this type of a resolution,” Ullrich said at the meeting. “It says we are a diverse town and we respect everybody here. I think much of what draws us here is that we want to be the kind of town that would support something like this.”
Immigration attorney Shannon McKinnon, another member of Essex Rising, also attended the meeting to support the resolution. She said the 800,000 people who applied for protections under the DACA program are now living in fear that they could be deported at any time, and that the council passing the resolution was the right thing to do.
“I think this is a wonderful opportunity for the Township Council to communicate the values of West Orange to the federal government,” McKinnon said at the meeting. “The DREAM Act is bipartisan legislation and it’s absolutely something that our town should support.”
The DREAM Act, or Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, is a legislative proposal that, if passed, would create a process in several stages to allow undocumented minors in the United States to obtain permanent residency. The bill was first introduced in 2001 and has been reintroduced several times but never passed.
Gladys Cumberton, a West Orange resident whose daughter is a DACA recipient, also spoke at the meeting. In Spanish translated by McKinnon, she told council members how her daughter, Paula, benefited from the federal program and was able to attend college because of it.
“I realized that once your visa is expired, there isn’t a way to legalize your status,” Cumberton said. “Not for me, not for her.”
She said that when Paula was looking at colleges during her junior year at West Orange High School, they realized that, because she was undocumented, she would be unable to continue going to school.
Cumberton praised the BOE and WOHS Principal Hayden Moore for their assistance in helping Paula apply for DACA status.
“The letter that the high school and the Board of Education wrote for Paula to turn in with her DACA application was incredible,” Cumberton said. “She was part of the first class of DACA recipients to graduate with honors.”
Paula has since graduated from Montclair State University with honors.
Councilwoman Michelle Casalino applauded the school district and WOHS administration for their decisions concerning DACA as well, saying that passing the council resolution was a “no-brainer.”
“Our school system and what we do for our kids has always been something that I know we’ve all been really proud of,” she said. “It’s always good to start with the easy stuff first, the no-brainers to support our children and our community.”
Councilman Victor Cirilo cited his own personal history in his comments at the meeting. He immigrated to the United States as a child as well, something in which he had no say.
“It’s a lengthy issue, it’s a federal issue and it will be decided at those levels,” Cirilo said. “But we live in a community that is welcoming, that is progressive. Thank you for creating a more inclusive community and a more progressive community.”
Cumberton also spoke to the BOE at its Jan. 8 meeting, and the members of that board made similar comments in response to passing the resolution then.
“I’m very happy we’re making this decision,” BOE Vice President Mark Robertson, himself a first-generation American, said at the meeting. “It’s important in terms of our values and our children.”
“Most of you know that I am originally from Jamaica, and if there was all the chaos that’s happening now back in the 1980s, I honestly don’t know if I would be here,” BOE member Sandra Mordecai said at the meeting. “Hats off to you. It’s a tough battle, thank you for fighting it.”
At the Jan. 23 council meeting, Cumberton closed her comments by asking council members to support all immigrant children by passing the resolution.
“I’m here to ask you to support our children, support our children like you supported my daughter,” she said. “Don’t leave them alone. Join the fight. We need it.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic