Zach Patberg of the Asbury Park Press reports: An obscure sign on a dilapidated Second Street house has spread fear and fury over one business owner’s threat to start a volunteer immigration watchdog group in an effort to clean up the downtown commercial district.
Day laborers waiting for work Thursday morning could not help but notice the sign hanging between boarded-up windows across the street: “Coming Soon To This Location ICE: Immigration & Customs Enforcement Volunteer Corps.”
One laborer said he was worried ‘they were going to pick up the people’ like himself who were undocumented immigrants.
But Hershel Herskowitz, owner of Toys For Thought, who put up the sign, said the message was not intended for day laborers but for downtown Hispanic-owned storefronts that he accused of engaging in criminal activity such as drugs and money laundering.
“I’m hoping that this will be a wake-up call for our town to our landlords that have allowed a certain element to come into the downtown,” Herskowitz said in a video posted on The Lakewood Scoop blog site as well as YouTube. “I hope no one misunderstands this as anti-Hispanic or any way a racist statement. We are merely trying to point out that we have businesses in downtown that are not legitimate businesses.”
Immigrant advocates, however, failed to see the sign as anything but an intimidation tactic for undocumented Hispanics.
“It’s unthinkable that in Lakewood, where we’re supposed to be building tolerance and respect, we’d find a something like this,” said Lydia Valencia, CEO of Puerto Rican Congress of New Jersey, based in Lakewood.
She said she has received several calls and emails from those concerned about the sign since it went up over the weekend. Yet it’s unclear whether such an immigration group would be valid. I.C.E. Spokesman Harold Ort said no volunteer corps’ exist within the agency. And, while he has included the I.C.E. name and seal on the sign, Herskowitz said the group would have no affiliation with I.C.E. He added he plans to renovate the site of the rundown house into a four-story office and retail building. A volunteer immigration enforcement office will likely never be part of the plans, Herskowitz admitted, calling the sign more of a warning.
“We’re not quite sure what he’s trying to accomplish,” Mayor Robert Singer said. “But we can’t stop someone from doing something like this if it’s legal.”