By Annie Dong
New York City, NY
Last year, as President Trump campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert was knocking on doors in one of Princeton’s immigrant communities as she campaigned for her second term. She approached a Muslim couple to ask for their support. The woman, wearing a headscarf, lingered in the doorway.
“They were terrified,” Lempert said in an interview.
After the election, the mood darkened further. Rumors of federal immigration raids spread throughout the town. The streets around a local bodega known as a gathering place for immigrants were suddenly empty.
Trump’s presidency, Lempert said, has sent a “chilling effect” through Princeton’s immigrant communities. Now, she has found herself the face of local resistance to a divisive president.
“It’s been a challenge for everyone,” Lempert said. “You want to make sure people are not living in the shadows and can’t get help.”
Even before Trump’s rise, Lempert spearheaded new outreach from the police department to immigrant and Spanish-speaking communities. Those efforts, she said, are even more important now. To underscore her message, the town will host a “welcoming week” for immigrants in September.
Lempert said it’s critical to communicate to people that government services — especially law enforcement — are always available to them regardless of their immigration status. It’s a value she learned growing up in California as part of a politically active family. Her mother was a member of the local city council and her brother served in the state Assembly. “I saw what a politician should be,” Lempert said.
Initially, she became a journalist; she said she was more comfortable with writing than public speaking. Lempert worked as a copy editor for The New York Times and later as an environmental reporter for National Public Radio. It wasn’t until 2007, when she worked as a volunteer for Barack Obama’s campaign in New Jersey, that she became more involved in politics.
After Lempert won her first term as mayor of Princeton, the town sent out surveys to residents. There was so little response from Latino residents that officials realized they needed Spanish speakers to promote outreach and build a “bond of trust” with immigrant communities. According to Lempert, law enforcement partnered with nonprofits, implemented a municipal ID program, and recovered $100,000 in wages stolen from immigrant workers.
Now, Lempert is trying to preserve that momentum. For instance, she said that by having people who specialize in immigration policies present at community meetings, the town is striving to make sure that people in the area have a place to turn for help.
But Princeton can only do so much, Lempert believes. “Elections do matter,” she said, noting that the “federal government has authority. There is a limit to what we can do.” Right now, she said, it’s critical for everyone within the community to unite and work together.
If the main thoroughfare leading to town hall is any indication, residents share Lempert’s perspective. Witherspoon Street is populated with ethnic restaurants, corner stores sporting foreign languages, and campaign-like yard signs. Their slogan: “Hate has no home here.”