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Where Immigrants Are Welcomed

As Uncle Sam cuts benefits to illegals, Jersey City declares itself a sanctuary

The Statue of Liberty faces the earthy shores of the Hudson River, holding permanent watch, it would seem, over the 70 nationalities that make up this working-class community on the river's edge.

Jersey City - only 1-1/2 miles from Ellis Island - has been a haven for immigrants since the 16th century. Last year, more than 7,000 came here, helping to make this community one of the top destinations in the United States for newcomers.

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Now the city is taking an unusual stand on immigration. Even as the US and many states are cutting benefits for immigrants and pouring money into sealing the borders, Jersey City officials have declared their community a "safe haven" for foreigners - legal and illegal.

The measure discourages city workers from reporting illegal immigrants to authorities (as the new US immigration law recommends) and from using city money to identify and apprehend illegal immigrants.

The move is reminiscent of the 1980s, when major US cities declared themselves sanctuaries for illegal aliens entering the US from Central America.

"I dictated this resolution based on a historic perspective and a point of view taught to me as a child," says councilman Jaime Vazquez, who grew up crab fishing with his Polish and Italian friends on the city's shores. Mr. Vazquez, a Democrat who is running for mayor in this spring's election, says provisions in the new US immigration and welfare laws are whittling away at immigrants' rights, fostering a climate in which newcomers may be used as scapegoats for society's problems.

Take Vilas Kothari. She is one of hundreds of elderly immigrants living in Jersey City who has lost her medical benefits as a result of the revised welfare law. She left India's Gugarat province 12 years ago to accompany her son here. She has never taken the American citizenship test, in part, because she does not speak English. Now, she and her husband are about to leave their family and go back to India because they can't afford the medical treatment they need.

"We're afraid," says Chiman Patel, a retired businessman from India who also may be forced to leave his family in the US.

Mr. Patel's and Ms. Kothari's concerns echo through a city where 25 percent of the people were born overseas, 14 percent emigrated to the US within the past 10 years, and 41 percent don't speak English at home. A quarter of Jersey City's 230,000 inhabitants are Latino, a third are African-American, and 11 percent are Asian.

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New Jersey, with 8 million people, is the nation's fifth most-popular destination for newly arriving immigrants. It welcomed 40,000 legal aliens last year - Pennsylvania, with 12 million inhabitants, had only 15,000.

But in the corridors of city hall, Vazquez's resolution was adopted with some hesitation. Some worry the new measure will mean a huge influx of immigrants.

"We might as well put a sign on Jersey City saying anyone who is an illegal alien is welcome," says councilwoman Nancy Gaynor, the lone dissenter, explaining that the measure would put a strain on jobs and housing for hard-pressed residents.

The resolution was "good in theory" but sent the wrong message to illegal immigrants, adds councilwoman Melissa Holloway, who abstained.

Still, supporters say the measure is an important symbolic gesture that takes a stand against Americans' hardening attitudes toward immigrants. "We wanted to make a statement that, in our ethnically diverse city, we didn't want any city agency ferreting out illegal immigrants," says council president Tom DeGise, one of four members who supported the resolution. "My job as a school teacher is to educate the children in front of me," he says, "not be in a position of saying, 'Are you an illegal immigrant?' "

"The reality is," adds Mayor Bret Schundler, "it is immigrants who are keeping Jersey City going."

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