TOMS RIVER – Around 30 Toms River high school students gathered with signs, artwork and strong words during the evening of Sept. 22 on the side entrance of the Toms River Branch of the Ocean County Library.
They came out to support those who will be impacted by the cancellation of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. The rally, organized by Zachary Dougherty, the president of the Toms River High School Democrats, was designed “to show that America supports its Dreamers,” Dougherty said.
The students spoke about their opposition to President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Obama-era DACA program in six months. The president has asked Congress to consider a replacement for the program, which protects undocumented immigrants brought here as children by their parents from deportation.
Dougherty said that “after the shakeup to our previous immigration policies a few of my friends and I were getting pizza after school, and we started to talk about DACA and how our friends are affected, what representatives to call, and we started to plan how we could make a difference.
“The school club I founded is the North Democratic Club which has 40 members. We used our structural support to help spread the word within the three Toms River schools. Social media/call/text/email/ and just people to people to get as many kids involved. We also reached out to local activist groups, politically active groups, candidates, and elected officials,” Dougherty said.
Dougherty said the event was 100 percent student organized and that it included students making signs, artwork, writing poetry and all the speakers were students.
“Our goal is to show that regardless of what goes on in the federal level or the state, our Dreamers, supported by DACA, are our friends, peers, classmates, teammates and we will stand up for each other in our schools,” Dougherty said. He added that “children are not just an item for a political agenda, that illegal children shouldn’t be treated in any negative light, and ultimately to express that even on the smallest scale in Toms River Schools, there are students who will stand shoulder to shoulder with our Dreamers.”
Bernie Garcia, is a 16-year-old junior at Toms River High School North and a Mexican American who spoke during the rally, told his story. “My parents came here to escape poverty. We escaped poverty but faced racism. We need change and we need it now.
“These children were brought here illegally but they are kids that are chasing the American dream and to take their status away from them would be a disgusting thing to do,” Toms River High School North junior Edgar Lemus Rivera said. He said the issue has touched him personally as his cousin is part of the DACA program.
Evelyn Nazzario, 18, a senior at Toms River High School North, also serves as the school’s student council president. “I look at the news and I wonder is anything progressing? When I see things like this today, I see hope. If we are united we stand a chance to change. No one should live with a fear to live here. Dreamers deserve a chance too.”
Nancy Ciasulli and her husband Mario came out for the event. The Toms River couple arrived a short time before the rally began and supported the speakers’ message.
“I think it is wonderful that they are here doing this,” Nancy Ciasulli said. Her husband added, “We’re all dreamers. We all come from other lands.”
Another attendee was Lynn Gulczynski, Toms River. “I heard about this from the local chapter of NOW (National Organization of Women). My grandchildren are going to college and some of these kids (the Dreamers) have the extra burden of worrying from day to day of what will happen to them. It is awful.”
Ryan Young, co-president of the Ocean County Young Democrats and 9th District assembly candidate said Zachary had picked up a new title today. “He is now the vice president of our high school outreach program. It is great to see these students so engaged at such a young age. They have become engaged a lot earlier than some of us.”
Emma Mommano, Brick, came out with her young daughter to support the rally’s message. She is a Democratic candidate for Senate in the 10th Legislative District. She said the decision to end DACA should be reconsidered as such decisions “should be made with compassion. We can find a path for undocumented people to be part of our country, especially New Jersey, which is third to Texas and California in having undocumented workers.”
Local representative Congressman Tom MacArthur’s office provided the following statement regarding the rally, “Congressman MacArthur has previously expressed his support for the DACA program and voted against repealing it during his first term in Congress. He believes we need to fix our nation’s immigration system but starting this process by hurting the most innocent and vulnerable population would be wrong and misguided.”
“Immigration will always be the hottest topic in the country,” Dougherty said. We are a nation of immigrants. If our students don’t feel safe in school something is wrong. We don’t want to be talked about and not have a say in it. This kind of rally can happen all over New Jersey. We can’t take a back seat. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. This is about kids. We can, and we will, make a difference in our community.”