Our group began simply… with neighbors reaching out to help neighbors.
The History of Community of Friends in Action
The Community of Friends in Action, now known also as CoFiA, was formed in the early 1990s when workers from Central America began to arrive in Eastern Bergen County, especially Palisades Park, in large numbers. Although the town had long been a magnet for immigrants, these new arrivals were anything but welcome. They experienced harassment from both the municipal government and the residents.
The American Friends Service Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union got involved, and the overt harassment was largely stopped. Volunteers often went to the municipal offices to stand with the workers as observers and advocates.
Efforts followed to organize the workers and create programs for them. Space was found for English classes at the Knights of Columbus Hall, and ID cards and workers’ rights information were provided to students. The mayor of Palisades Park and the Chief of Police were sympathetic.
Around 1999 volunteers began to help with wage theft, providing information on where various services could be obtained such as bank accounts, OSHA training, and medical care. A small group of workers and volunteers began to meet regularly to discuss other ways to help. The Presbyterian Church in Leonia, and St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, provided space and sponsored programs for the community.
In 1995, in response to the death of a worker, Bergen County organized a “Day Laborers Task Force” to try to address the needs on a more formal basis. While the effort to create a working group including mayors from neighboring towns was not successful because the officials were only willing to assist people holding documents, an agreement between the county and the United Labor Agency of Bergen County resulted in the hiring of a community organizer. This relationship also resulted in a concrete plan for a much-needed Community Center. However, this did not come to fruition and the organizer was fired after about a year and a half.
Around 2007 volunteers began to distribute bag lunches to workers on the streets of Palisades Park during the cold months. The Palisades Park Health Department intervened and said this could not be done, so the program was stopped.
In the fall of 2008 Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church agreed to allow the Community of Friends in Action to use their spacious fellowship hall to provide lunches and educational seminars for the workers. The Health Department said only pre-packaged food could be served, which was agreed to by CoFiA.
In 2009 CoFiA applied for 501(c)3 status which allows the group to receive tax-deductible donations. A more formal organizational structure was also developed. The lunch program continued, with assistance from grants from the Lutheran Social Services agency. CoFia also became more active in wage theft recovery, a Workers’ Link program was initiated linking homeowners with available workers, and the ESL classes at the Palisades Park Library continued. Several bi-lingual people served as paid and unpaid facilitators during this time. Relations with the municipal government, including the health department and the police department, improved considerably.
In 2011 CoFiA produced a video, “Why I Am Here/Porque Estoy Aqui,” which tells the story of one of the Guatemalan members, Elias Garcia. The videographer, Juan Pablo Morales Estrada, was able to interview Garcia’s family in Guatemala, as well as capture his own powerful and painful experiences growing up in Guatemala during the genocide.
OSHA training is offered twice a year.
In 2015 rumors of raids by the Immigration and Customs enforcement agency frightened immigrant residents of the area. CoFiA’s organizer, Sayda Tuanama, arranged for a series of informational KNOW YOUR RIGHTS sessions led by speakers experienced in the field, including immigration attorneys. Speakers also spoke with the lunch guests about the possibility of organizing an effort to obtain municipal ID cards in Palisades Park, an effort that has been successful in other municipalities in New Jersey as well as in Mercer County.
In December of 2016, in response to an incident in which a day worker who was being sheltered overnight in a neighboring church died suddenly, CoFiA was asked to leave the church where we had been ministering to the workers since 2009. For several months we operated with no home base, but found that local coffee shops and restaurants were welcoming to our members for staff meetings and meals. In November of 2017 we accepted an invitation to resume our lunch program under the auspices of the NJ World Mission Church, meeting at First Presbyterian Church in Palisades Park. This is a happy connection, bringing our CoFiA volunteers into a working relationship with a group of Korean volunteers, together serving a population of hispanic workers.
The active membership of CoFiA is about 100 people, who participate at various levels of involvement including donating funds. The organization also receives grants and donations from various churches and community groups, including the Community Chest of Leonia.
The mission of the organization continues to be to work for better immigration policy, to educate the citizens of the various communities about immigration issues, and to help improve the lives of the workers. Volunteers are always welcome.