- Associated Press - Sunday, August 24, 2014

ELIZABETH, N.J. (AP) - Carlos Rojas was 12 years old when he came from Peru on a tourist visa with his mother and brother to join his father in Perth Amboy.

The family members stayed long after their visas expired and each kept living in the country illegally. Rojas graduated from high school and then Kean University in Union while his immigration status remained in limbo. He saw the many obstacles that other immigrants faced in the same situation and wrote about the experiences for a college course on public speaking and debate.

Last May, Rojas, now 25, reached back to his class instructor as part of his work to aid immigrants. He approached Mohamed Jalloh in an effort to get Union County to change its policy of detaining people who have already served a criminal sentence or who can make bail solely because of their immigrant status on a request from federal authorities.

Jalloh, who also is a Union County freeholder, listened to Rojas. As a result, the county this month made the policy change.

Rojas “made an argument the way we had taught students to make arguments in class,” Jalloh told The Star-Ledger (http://bit.ly/YR9P79). “He had laws to support his statements and evidence to support his facts.”

Although Rojas now has authorization to live and work in the U.S., a close family member who works delivering furniture does not. “I live with the constant fear that he will be pulled over and detained. When he goes to work, I never know if he’s coming home,” Rojas said. “This policy change provides another layer of protection.”

For years, Union County, like others across the state, would hold those who had served jail time or were able to meet bail requirements for up to 48 hours after they should have been released, officials said. They were detained solely on request of the Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency, which wanted time to pick up and further detain them.

Rojas argued that the additional time in jail was illegal - and Union County officials researched the issue and agreed.

The county will no longer hold people as federal detainees if they have completed a sentence, or have met bail requirements, and have no outstanding warrants to keep them locked up.

“This change is rooted in the clear delineation of the law,” Jalloh said.

To Rojas, it is one less challenge that immigrants face.

“Being undocumented, you are always at risk of being detained, if you are stopped for a taillight that is out or for not wearing a seat belt,” said Rojas, who is now a community organizer for Faith in New Jersey, a private, nonprofit network of more than 100 communities in the state.

Immigrants often avoid police and refuse to report crimes for fear of being detained, he said.

“I’ve seen domestic violence that wasn’t reported. I’ve seen people who were cheated out of money by employers and wouldn’t report it, and people who had problems with landlords who weren’t reported,” he said.

Several immigrant rights advocates have hailed the county’s decision.

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