PLEASANTVILLE, N.J. — As he gestured to the numerous soccer trophies adorning a side table in the dining room, Gregoria Huestipa apologized for the state of disorganization in his home.
“I’m sorry for the mess,” he said as he arranged things. “I only just got back a couple weeks ago, and I was gone for so long.”
Huestipa, 35, wasn’t on vacation or a business trip. He was jailed for a month in Newark after getting arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement outside his workplace in Margate for being an undocumented immigrant.
The Pleasantville father of two, born in Mexico, has spent the majority of his life building friendships, community and work in South Jersey, yet he is among the more than 41,000 people in the United States who were arrested earlier this year as a result of President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration.
For him, it means possibly being separated by thousands of miles from his two children, both born in South Jersey, and his community. For the state as a whole, experts say targeting undocumented immigrants can have detrimental effects on the economy, labor force and culture.
“I love the United States with all my heart,” Huestipa tells The Press of Atlantic City (http://bit.ly/2xDCaDb), sitting at his dining room table wearing a New York Mets hat while his 4-year-old son colored in the next room. “I don’t want to leave. I’ve been here since I was 9 and didn’t even think how I was different than anyone else until I was 18 or 19.”
Among his earliest acts as president, Trump more strictly enforced immigration policies and scaled back on others that included protections for undocumented immigrants, including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
ICE arrests from January to April this year show nearly a 40 percent increase from 2016, according to a May report. Nearly 75 percent of those arrested are convicted criminals with offenses for homicide, assault, sexual abuse and drug-related charges, ICE officials said in the report.
The influx of arrests is reflected in the backlog of cases in immigration courts, including 31,688 people waiting for hearings in New Jersey as of August, according to the TRAC Immigration database at Syracuse University.
It also shows it will take 789 days, or about two and a half years, for someone’s immigration case in New Jersey to be resolved once it is opened.
The waiting and uncertainty for individuals going through immigration legal proceedings can be emotionally and psychologically stressful, said Jessie Fleck, Stockton University sociology and anthropology professor and an expert in migrant and immigration research.
“The current political climate created panic,” she said. “For someone who gets targeted by ICE, imagine living under that shadow (of possible deportation) for two and a half years. That’s cruel and unusual punishment.”
On a recent Monday, Huestipa took a day off from his job as a restaurant cook and traveled the hour to and from Philadelphia to meet with his immigration lawyer for an upcoming hearing. His chances look good, he said, but there are factors against him — not being married to a citizen and several arrests for nonviolent and nondrug crimes that he classified as “stupid decisions” in his 20s.
As his son and daughter’s primary caregiver, as well as a known soccer trainer and coach in the Pleasantville and Atlantic City communities, Huestipa said the thought of going back to a country he only lived in as a small child and leaving his family, home and community is painful.
“When I was in jail, after I got arrested, it was so hard to be away from them (the children) for that long,” he said. “And they knew where I was. They knew I couldn’t come home. I could not go back to Mexico and not see my kids.”
Finch said South Jersey has a sizeable immigrant population that lives and works near the casinos in Atlantic County, the seasonal businesses and restaurants along the shore and on farms in Cumberland County.
Two of the most common misconceptions out there, she said, are that undocumented immigrants are taking jobs away from citizens and they are costing the country money by living here. Finch cited studies that show the majority of immigrants contribute more to the economy than they take from it.
As for jobs, Finch said many families encourage teens to pursue college degrees or schooling for trade-skill careers in order to find high-paying jobs. Many of the jobs held by undocumented immigrants are low-paying, with little to no benefits and sometimes in harsh conditions, she said.
Although they may not have political citizenship, Finch argues that people such as Huestipa, who has lived in the United States for 24 years and had no choice in his family’s decision to move as a child, have developed cultural citizenship.
“This (situation) is certainly far from the American ethos of, ‘Give me your tired, your poor …'” Finch said. “For immigrants, including those here under DACA, who are living here in America and have American values, we’re suddenly telling them they’re not good enough.”
When he’s not working, Huestipa encourages his children to do their homework, be with friends and have fun in the community. His passion lies in soccer and he has coached several teams in Pleasantville over the years, even when his children are not on them.
He also offers private training to kids and is regularly on a nearby soccer field with his son, who he hopes will get an opportunity to play professionally one day.
“If I’m not here, all my dreams for me and my kids is done,” he said.
Rhonda Greenblatt, a Linwood-based lawyer, said she’s represented people such as Huestipa. She also knows getting a green card or obtaining citizenship in the United States is not as easy as people think it is.
Greenblatt said the citizenship and immigration laws are complex, and things can take a long time. People try to do the paperwork themselves, she said, but they are not attorneys, and any little mistake could cause delays or get their papers denied.
“People come here to be with their families, to make a better life, and that’s the fabric of our society,” she said. “They are people who want to be citizens, to care for their families and contribute to the economy. They are among the hardest-working people I’ve ever met.”
Huestipa said he may not know the outcome of his case for another two years, so he will spend that time working and providing for his family, caring for his children, following his immigration lawyer’s guidance and playing a role in his community.
“I think I will win my case. I have to,” he said.
Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com