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RED BANK – Gaudencio Morales moves swiftly through the kitchen he’s worked in the last five years, picking up avocados, eggs and tortillas for one of the many phone orders on a recent morning. 

Clanging pans and chatter in English and Spanish blend with the breakfast aromas wafting through KITCH Organic, a trendy gluten-free restaurant on Leighton Avenue where Morales is chef. 

While pleasing customers is always the top priority, Morales’ focus these days is on making sure President Joe Biden keeps his lofty immigration promises and delivers what millions like him, living in the country without authorization, have been yearning for: immigration “papeles,” or papers, he said in Spanish. 

“We cannot just trust politicians,” the 32-year-old Morales told the Press. “We’ve heard promises before but nothing has changed. We, the people, need to make sure these politicians deliver this time. We need to pressure them because they tend to only play with us.” 

For many immigrants, at the Jersey Shore and beyond, the Biden presidency, even in its first weeks, has been a respite from the aggressively anti-immigrant sentiment and deportation fear unleashed by Donald Trump’s presidency.

Biden has renewed hopes that an immigration overhaul is possible and that doing so will improve their prospects of becoming citizens of the country they helped build. They also see it as an end to what has been a steady drumbeat of immigration horror stories, like the saga of border-crossing children being separated from their parents.

One of Biden’s first announced steps was the unveiling of proposed immigration legislation featuring an eight-year pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million immigrants living in the United States without legal status.

It includes expanding refugee admissions; deploying technology to patrol the border; ending construction of the border wall his predecessor promised Mexico would pay for (it did not); and instituting a 100-day stay on deportations, a measure temporarily blocked by a federal court. 

Biden’s immigration proposal also called for a symbolic change. His bill, if passed, would remove the definitional word “alien”— long seen as dehumanizing and debasing by critics — from U.S. immigration laws, replacing it with “noncitizen” to describe those without “papeles.”

The new president had already pledged continued support for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which provides work permits and removal protection to certain unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have no felonies or serious misdemeanors on their record. 

A Supreme Court ruling last year barred the Trump administration from ending the program, which would have put the futures of nearly 700,000 DACA recipients in jeopardy.

“It means so much to us to have a new president propose bold, visionary immigration reform on Day 1. Not Day 2. Not Day 3. Not a year later,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., his chamber’s lead sponsor of the Biden package.

Biden also reversed Trump’s push to leave undocumented immigrants out of the population count used to reapportion the House of Representatives, a move that could have cost New Jersey a delegation seat.

According to the Pew Research Center, New Jersey is home to the fifth-largest undocumented immigrant population in the U.S. with 475,000. That’s “too big a number to be ignored” for political gain, said Luciana Silva, executive director of BR Help Center in Long Branch.

Silva, a Brazilian who arrived in the United States in 1999 and worked as a maid, launched BR Help Center, offering notary, translations and other services, and connecting the Brazilian and Latinx community in the area with legal help and mental health specialists. 

“Including undocumented immigrants in the apportionment count is not and should never be a political issue,” Silva said. “It is extremely important not only because it will keep the census count accurate, allowing for fair representation and, therefore, social justice.”

Nancy Trujillo, 45, who arrived from the Mexican state of Morelos almost two decades ago, said that the last five years were disheartening.

Now a general manager at a local fast food restaurant, she recalled when Trump launched his first presidential campaign in an address at Trump Tower in which he called some people coming from Mexico “rapists.”

“When Trump came down the escalator and said all those things about us, it made me angry and sad,” said Trujillo, who does not have legal status. “But we have to keep going forward. We’ve been blessed to not have encountered any problems with people who think like him or with the law. Although we’ve still been affected in other ways.”

Her family reflects the diversity of many immigrant families in this country, where some households have members with citizenship, members who have been approved for DACA protection, and members who lack legal status.

Two of Trujillo’s three children were born in Mexico. Only one of them, 20-year-old Alan Trujillo, has DACA protection. Her 18-year-old son, Axel Trujillo, is still hoping to secure such protection, which he sees as key to his future.

Dreaming of majoring in political science, he submitted his DACA application days before the program was abruptly suspended in 2017. (A federal judge later resurrected it, requiring the government to accept new applications.)

“It really sucked,” Axel Trujillo said. “I had really big plans to go college. What’s the point of studying if I can’t afford it, if I can’t do anything with my degree?”

He added: “And Trump in power made me feel worried. He said he would do all this stuff to us. It scared us because we always thought what would happen if one of us were to get deported.”

The last few weeks have provided him with a new outlook about his future. Axel Trujillo said he is thinking again of going to college, perhaps majoring in business administration. Three weeks ago he submitted a new DACA application.

While Biden has promised an ambitious legislative proposal, its initial steps have not moved forward unimpeded. On Jan. 26, a federal judge in Texas issued a temporary restraining order on Biden’s 100-day pause on deportations.

The pause, acting Homeland Security Secretary David Pekoske explained in a memo, was to allow immigration workers to focus on national security, public safety threats, and anyone apprehended entering the country illegally after Nov. 1.

The restraining order was sought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and issued by U.S. District Judge Drew Tipton, a Trump nominee.

“Texas is the FIRST state in the nation to bring a lawsuit against the Biden Admin,” Paxton, a Republican, wrote on Twitter. “AND WE WON. Within 6 days of Biden’s inauguration, Texas has HALTED his illegal deportation freeze.”

He went on to call it a “seditious left-wing insurrection.”

For immigration attorney Andrés Mejer, himself an immigrant from Chile, the court defeat should not scare immigrants or derail elected officials from pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.

Mejer, who has offices in Long Branch and Lakewood, said that, instead, people should start collecting their documents and reviewing their options. 

“Even if immigration reform passes tomorrow, in one month or in one year, people need to be prepared,” he said. “The new administration is bringing back normalcy and rationality to immigration processes and that is good. But talk is cheap. We need results.”

Mejer said that people have recovered hope and are interested in learning how the changes Biden promises could benefit them. A video on his YouTubechannel — “Nine things Biden said he’ll change in U.S. immigration” — has garnered more than 150,000 views since it was posted Jan. 6.

Advocacy organizations like Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Trenton are also seeing more people approaching them to learn about what’s ahead.

Executive Director Marlene Laó-Collins said her organization is ramping up efforts to discuss Biden’s measures with immigrant communities. It also is reaching out to voters to get them press lawmakers for immigration reform. 

“I think our communities play an important role in getting immigration reform this time,” Laó-Collins said. “It’s not just Biden’s responsibility to move Congress. It has to be the will of the people what makes this happen.” 

At KITCH Organic, Morales agrees and takes that approach further.

Knowing that immigrants and their supporters have been here before — he notes that President Barack Obama promised immigration reform twice but didn’t deliver — he says he’s planning to go to Washington, D.C., to press for change.

Morales is a member of Movimiento Cosecha (Harvest Movement), an immigration advocacy group with a presence in 20 states. In New Jersey, the group is part of the coalition of groups leading the push for driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants.

And just as they fought hard for driving privileges, Morales said, the group will make sure politicians acknowledge the contributions immigrants have made to this country.

“We deserve dignity and respect,” he said. “We have helped this country and we now need papers and protections to have a better life without fear. But we have to raise our voices because these politicians never hand out things for free.”

Written by Gustavo Martínez Contreras and published on February 01, 2021 at Arsbury Park Press.