This blog Post was gust authored by Michael McLean, Director of Jersey City’s Division of Immigrant Affairs.
Last week I looked out at a group of nearly one hundred lawyers, social workers, teachers, and volunteers, all of them ready to roll up their sleeves to assist and empower immigrants. It was the Jersey City Immigrant Affairs Symposium, and it felt like nothing could stop us from making our city a haven for refugees, aslyees, and other vulnerable newcomers. I felt the electricity of the room, but I wasn’t in the audience. I was standing at the podium.
When Jersey City created the Division of Immigrant Affairs, it looked to our community of helper-advocates to be the director. Pulling a leader from the trenches, I’m the guy they found—a high school teacher who’s spent a decade of nights and weekends teaching English to refugees, visiting asylum-seekers in detention, and helping the vulnerable start a new life right here in JC. Leading Immigrant Affairs is my calling. And to put it lightly, my nights and weekends are still booked.
So how can Jersey City be more welcoming to immigrants? The answer isn’t just adding a new division of municipal government. Jersey City can truly welcome immigrants by strategically mobilizing the communities and professionals who are already investing their sweat and tears. It’s less about raging against the deportation machine, and more about creating lasting partnerships that can ensure long-term success.
Jersey City can truly welcome immigrants by strategically mobilizing the communities and professionals who are already investing their sweat and tears.
The symposium brought us closer to this goal because it provided a space for dialogue, collaboration, and partnership:
- Health and Human Services Director, Stacey Flanagan, presented immigrants as a central part of a total public health strategy.
- We shared expert tools for accessing services, making referrals, and measuring our impact.
- Mayor Steven Fulop’s Office and representatives from the U.S. Census Bureau shared updates on the 2020 Census mobilization.
- The Church World Service resettlement office discussed preliminary findings of its Needs-Assessment Study.
- The Immigrant Affairs Division invited contributions to our Resource Guide, which will be translated into 8 foreign languages.
- Immigrant Affairs Commissioners asked the community to attend its meetings to further developing the city’s Sanctuary City policies.
- The Division of Injury Prevention invited all to a free Mental Health First-Aid training.
What else? We heard emotional testimonies from the frontlines. Edafe Okporu recounted his persecution as an LGBTQ activist in Nigeria, seeking asylum from a for-profit detention center, and winning freedom with the help of local community groups. Today, he is the executive director of the RDJ Refugee Shelter, sharing light in the darkness for others like him. Sally Pillay recapped her ten-year career as a social worker and activist with First Friends of NJ & NY, breaking down in tears as she revealed the painful irony of having to return to South Africa with an expired professional visa after she helped so many stay in the U.S. Our guest speakers reminded us that our work with immigrants is fueled by immense emotions, a timeless yearning to help others breathe free.
If you missed the symposium on January 8, don’t worry; There is a long road ahead, and we need you. Volunteers will be needed at citizenship clinics, lawyers will fight cases and hold public workshops, doctors will give free medical screenings, social workers will counsel, ESL teachers will hold class. We will continue serving and giving of ourselves, and we will be doing it together, stronger.