Princeton Welcomes Immigrants

In January of 2014,  the Human Services Commission in Princeton established an Immigration Subcommittee to coordinate outreach and services to low-income immigrant residents. This paper summarizes the steps taken by Princeton to earn the title of “Welcoming Community” by Welcoming America, a national movement to build more inclusive communities. Princeton was the first community in New Jersey to receive this honor. The paper was written by John Heilner, Chairperson of the Immigration Subcommittee.


Princeton has welcomed immigrants for a very long time, and has stepped up its efforts in the last thirty years. Starting in the mid 19thCentury Princeton welcomed immigrant workers, many of them Irish, to help dig the Delaware & Raritan Canal. However, they were not paid very well and lived in substandard conditions. Princeton University’s great expansion in the late 19thCentury saw a large demand for Italian stone masons. Many settled in Princeton and attracted family and friends from their home country. While certainly not immigration, during the Great Migration (1920-1950), Princeton attracted many African-Americans from the south who found employment with the University and in the homes of wealthy white people.

From the 1930’s on, the University and the Institute for Advanced Studies attracted some of the most educated people in the world. Entrepreneurs, business people and others with resources were attracted by Princeton’s atmosphere, school system and progressive values. Starting in the 1980’s our need for services of all types and our excellent school system began attracting many less wealthy immigrants – primarily from Mexico, Central America, and Africa.

Deportation of undocumented immigrants ramped up under Presidents Obama and Trump. This led Princeton to decide that basic fairness to people who had lived here for many years, some for decades, and its continuing need for essential workers – especially in restaurants, landscaping, home assistance and construction – required that it do what it could, within the country’s deeply flawed immigration system, to protect our neighbors. Princeton decided that it would be a welcoming community and acknowledge the many economic and cultural contributions of all its residents. Beginning in the 1990’s this led to a number of policies and initiatives, both public and private:

  • Starting in the 1990’s Princeton’s Adult Education program and the YWCA have offered English as a Second Language classes.
  • After an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raid in Princeton in 2004 led to the detention and deportation of a large group of local workers, a few local residents started the Latin American Legal Defense & Education Fund (LALDEF.) Now based in Trenton with a budget just over $1 million, it serves all of Mercer County with youth and adult educational supplements, legal services, and outreach to low-income immigrants regarding many social services and health care – especially critical during covid.
  • In 2013 the Princeton Police Department (PPD) conducted a community survey in English and Spanish. Not a single Latino reply was received. This caused the PPD to realize that its outreach to, and relations with, Latino residents required much improvement.
  • When Nick Sutter became Police Chief late in 2013, he was determined to do something about this. In 2014 Chief Sutter issued a Police Directive that instructed all Princeton officers not to take part in Federal immigration enforcement. He clearly defined that their job was local public safety, and that to be successful they needed to build the immigrant community’s trust to come forward as victims of and witnesses to crime. It’s interesting to note that four years later, in November 2018, our NJ State Attorney General issued a similar directive to all law enforcement and incarceration agencies throughout the State – the “Trust Directive,” No. 2018-6.
  • Meanwhile one of our police officers, an immigrant from Nicaragua himself, began to visit St. Paul’s Catholic Church after the Spanish mass on his own time to build relationships with the immigrant community.
  • In January 2014, our Human Services Commission established an Immigration Subcommittee to assist with outreach and services to low-income immigrant residents. It ensures that residents know their rights with regard to ICE enforcement and wage theft, and helps connect them to needed services and our schools. Our Human Services Director, assisted by the PPD, has successfully mediated many wage theft disputes.
  • In 2014 Princeton passed a Landscapers Ordinance. It requires that all landscapers working in Princeton register with the Town, and acknowledge that they understand Federal and State wage and hour laws and provide workers compensation insurance.
  • In December 2014, New York City spearheaded the formation of “Cities for Action” whose purpose is to advocate for pro-immigrant federal policies that create stronger cities. Princeton joined in September 2015, and today over 200 US cities and counties representing 70 million people are members.
  • In September 2015 Princeton became the first municipality in New Jersey to join Welcoming America which works to build more inclusive and welcoming communities. Today it has over 200 member communities worldwide.
  • Also in September 2015, the Town Council passed a resolution calling on the State to provide drivers licenses to homeless and undocumented residents, and those returning from incarceration. This makes our roads safer through driver testing and required insurance. In 2019 this law finally passed the State Legislature and was implemented just this May, 2021.
  • For many years our public library and Arts Council have offered programs interesting and useful to immigrants. The library also hosts the issuance in Princeton of the “Mercer County Community ID Card” for those without other documentation. Starting in 2009, over 13,000 cards have been issued throughout Mercer County by LALDEF. The card is recognized by many local police departments, hospitals, libraries and service organizations. Banks recognize it as a secondary form of ID.
  • In the last couple of years, our Health Department worked to expand the Child Health Conference for Princeton (formerly the “Well Baby Clinic”) for uninsured/underinsured children from the state-mandated 6 years of age up to 18 years of age. It is primarily used by undocumented children.
  • Most recently, during the covid pandemic: our Director of Human Services and others worked to ensure that a private nonprofit rental relief program did not unintentionally exclude undocumented residents; food relief programs in town were careful to include outreach in both English and Spanish; a grassroots mutual aid organization sprung up to link those in need – immigrants or not – with those able to assist; and our local Health Department hired a “vulnerable communities coordinator” to ensure that covid prevention information and vaccinations reached both English speaking and non-English speaking residents. Convenient pop-up vaccination sites are now sited around town.

John Heilner                                                                                                                   June 27, 2021
Chair, Immigration Subcommittee
Princeton Human Services Commission