Father Kenneth Hallahan of the Black Horse Pike Ministry of the Diocese of Camden spoke of seeing parishioners separated from their children. One father was handcuffed in front of his 3-year-old son, he said.
Some of his parishioners, undocumented workers, admit to not attending services because they fear police officers stationed on the Black Horse Pike might confiscate their cars, he said.
"Our money says 'In God We Trust,' " Hallahan said in impassioned remarks. "Rejection of immigration is a rejection of that God."
Hallahan was among members of a newly formed coalition of activists calling themselves the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice who pressed the cause of immigration reform Wednesday from the steps of St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in Camden.
The newly launched statewide campaign, "New Jersey for All," is intended to encourage policy changes by the state, including issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.
The rally came as the Christie administration this week submitted an amicus brief in federal court, alongside Texas, Louisiana, and South Dakota, in an effort to stop President Obama's use of executive action to defer the deportations of millions of unlawful immigrants in certain categories.
"This is a shameful political move," said Johanna Calle, coordinator for Alliance for Immigrant Justice.
The president's action would enable millions of undocumented individuals to emerge from the legal shadows, including by acquiring driver's licenses, backers say.
Calle said 10 states currently issue driver's licenses to undocumented workers, but New Jersey - despite having the fourth-highest undocumented-immigrant population in the country, with more than 525,000 - is not one of them.
Gov. Christie's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Calle said the Alliance's current goal is to spark change at the community level.
She said when legal citizens are found driving without a license, those individuals receive a ticket or a summons, but when undocumented drivers are pulled over, local law enforcement often contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), though no federal law requires that.
"There's a misconception that law enforcement has to work with ICE, and that's not the case," Calle said.
The Alliance recommends local communities ask their police officers to not contact ICE and let that agency work independently of local officials.
Calle also emphasized the importance of gaining support from local officials for the president's actions in deferring deportations for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and for undocumented individuals who are parents of lawful U.S. residents.
"We believe immigrant rights are civil rights," said Kevin Brown, vice president of 32BJ SEIU in Newark. The next step, he said, is to contact municipal officials to get them on board.
"We need to come together to give fair reform a chance," said Harnel Paraison, assistant program director of the Family Resource Center and Health Education at the Hispanic Family Center of Southern New Jersey in Camden.
Paraison said working with undocumented immigrants has taught her that financial hardship, fear, and not knowing where to turn contribute to immigrants' silence.
Milly Silva, executive vice president of SEIU 1199, who was former State Sen. Barbara Buono's running mate in their unsuccessful attempt to unseat Gov. Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, said "every hardworking family deserves to live a dignified life."
Silva stressed that New Jersey needs to lead the way for immigration reform by passing legislation that enables undocumented workers to get to work safely and legally. She said the contributions of immigrants in the workforce are vital.
"Their stories represent the best of the American spirit," Silva said.