By Lawrence Krayn
Newark is a diverse place in more ways than one. On a daily basis we encounter people from all over the world. They are of different ages, professions, and life perspectives. It could be the person you meet at a bar, the barista at a local coffee shop, or the stranger you exchange pleasantries with on your way to work. Sometimes we may realize that a person has migrated from some other part of the world to our buzzing little metropolis on the Passaic, but how often do we ponder what it took for them to have gotten here?
It is hard not to be well-aware of the political controversies surrounding our current national migration crisis. Regardless of what side of the political spectrum you hail from, it’s near impossible to ignore. Record numbers of people have been flocking across our southern border, and with the Federal Government offering no solutions, human beings are being used as political pawns or being lost in the proverbial shuffle.
There was the disgraceful Trump-era policy of separating small children from their families. There were the recent publicity stunts: the governors of Texas and Florida bussing and flying migrants to New York City and Massachusetts. There are even less spoken of issues, like small border towns being saddled with the responsibility of absorbing migrants, without adequate resources or legislative solutions to address the increased need on city services.
But what of the real people caught in the middle? Who are they? Where are they? What are they going through?
This winter, on a quiet Friday evening in one of my favorite bars, as I conversed with a bartender and patrons while polishing off a cold glass of Heineken and a skirt steak, I got the chance to meet one of those very Newarkers. Perhaps an indication of my own naivety, I had never given any thought to his status, nor even had it crossed my mind that he may have been a recent migrant. Several times we’d exchanged pleasantries and conversation, and I’d just assumed that he was a native New Jerseyan with a slight accent. But on this evening, upon overhearing that I was a lawyer, he confided in me that he was suffering under an immense weight of stress and uncertainty, and he told me his story.
This man, a sharp communicator of millennial age, asked that I not share his name nor certain specifics of his personal history due to a pending asylum application. That said, he was eager for me to publish highlights of the process he’d been through to bring awareness to our greater community. For the purposes of this story, I’ll call him J.
J has a calming demeanor and speaks in a measured tone. He has a friendly and pleasant aura about him that quickly makes a person feel welcome and at ease. He grew up in Venezuela, a nation that has seen unprecedented economic collapse and upheaval in recent years. He was forced to leave due to dangerous political persecution. I won’t share the specific details of his persecution, but I can confidently say that any one of us would be living in fear if we were in his shoes. Wanting to do things the right way, but being savvy and inquisitive enough to have learned strategically the most optimal methods of migrating to the United States, J confided in me that he’d crossed the southern border illegally in Texas. He communicated his arrival here in a knowing and resigned way, as if he was disappointed in the illegality of his actions, but had acquiesced to the fact that it simply had to be done.
After crossing the border, J was apprehended in a small Texas town and was moved to a detention facility in El Paso. He remarked that he was lucky to have only had to stay there for seven days. He was also even-keeled about the process, as his intention had always been to go through the proper channels to obtain permanent residency. He told me that he spent most of those seven days in a cell with over 200 other people. He said that there were several other Venezuelans there, along with some Cubans and Brazilians, but he told me that the vast majority of the people he shared the cell with were Haitian. Once enrolled in the court process for asylum, he was released and made the long trek to Newark because he already had friends and contacts here.
He may have well been someone I could exchange small talk with at a law school event or an art exhibit, but here he was, recounting a harrowing experience and putting a face to all the generalized reports. J wanted it known that his ability to speak English fluently was a huge part of the reason he was able to navigate some of the process and experience better than others. Remarkably, he learned English as a second language all on his own, from watching movies, TV shows, and music. He told me that he would watch things without subtitles over the years, just to gain a mastery of the language. One cannot help but wonder if J’s fluent English and general presentation was a benefit to him, amid the implicit biases that humans have been proven to possess. Nonetheless, the border patrol officer who interrogated him was “very kind”, and allowed him to call his family and let them know that he was safe. An ICE agent whom he’d spoken to in Newark, specifically complimented his English and was encouraging, telling him to try to forget the politics, always pay his taxes, and just live his life the best he could without losing sleep over the news. He told me that the agent’s advice has stayed with him since he’s been here. He’s eager to become the American he already is.
To that end, J did not hesitate in getting the proper paperwork together so that he could start working legally. He keeps a grueling regular schedule and is damned good at his job. He’s been a positive addition to this particular Newark establishment, and is the precise type of citizen this city and state need. Still, he must go to bed at night in a perpetual and anxiety-inducing limbo. That’s because despite him being a productive and upstanding member of this city, there is still the very real chance that his asylum application will be denied. If it is, he’ll be forced to return to Venezuela, and face the very real consequences that await there.
Despite those consequences, he is ready and willing to face finality. Unfortunately, even that may prove elusive. He confided in me that several people he has met and knows have been waiting for years for an asylum hearing and have heard nothing. He specifically mentioned that he knew of several people who had been waiting since 2016, still with no word one way or the other. Apparently, people who filled out their applications in 2016 have had it especially hard in this regard. J has no date himself. He just must continue to live his life as a good resident and be attentive to the phone and his mail, should word ever come that his hearing date has finally arrived. He’s retained counsel, and his lawyer has given him some insight into the process, but he still has no way of speeding it up, gaining definitive knowledge of a timeline, or how his petition for asylum may be decided. Unfortunately, as J understands it, much of that may depend on which judge is assigned to his case. If that is true, it seems highly unfortunate that the life of a human being could be decided by the luck of the draw. It also seems unfair that J can spur economic activity, generate revenue for a local business, and pay taxes on his labor, while not getting any indication as to the current state of his due process. America is a nation built on immigration. Newark is a city that has absorbed migration both domestically and internationally as the very fabric of its life blood and legacy. I am both the third-generation son of immigrants, and the product of instate migration. J’s situation does not sit well with me from a moral standpoint.
Nevertheless, J continues to work and to live and to contribute to the social fabric of this city in the best ways that he can, but his own life and some of his dreams, ambitions, and goals remain in a frozen time of bureaucratic and federal limbo. I hope that stories like these, and public engagement on this issue can eventually bring changes to this process. I hope that someday soon the powers that be will press their reluctant stamp of formality and validate on paper that our honorable and hard-working neighbor has a right to stay here for good.
Lawrence Krayn Jr. is a Newark resident and lifelong New Jerseyan. He graduated from Rutgers University-Newark with a B.A. degree in Political Science and received his J.D. at Rutgers Law School-Newark. A practicing attorney by day, Larry spends much of his spare time engaging in creative projects. He sees Newark as a vibrant hub for the arts, and is an avid fan of various local creators. He has been a musician for many years under the moniker “IL Lusciato”, and hosts a weekly live podcast on current events, entitled “The Logic and Larry Podcast.” Whether fiction or non-fiction, his writing is heavily influenced by his immediate surroundings and his own life experiences.
Featured photo by Lawrence Krayn