Policy

New Jersey Police Seek Immigrants’ Trust, Get Pushback From ICE

Tensions rise in sanctuary clash between state, federal law enforcement

Immigration rights protesters take over the Senate steps of the Capitol in 2017. In New Jersey, police will no longer be permitted to ask about a suspect’s immigration status. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Ten New Jersey law enforcement officers — including stern-looking state troopers and local police chiefs — are the stars of a series of unusual videos in which they seek the trust of undocumented immigrants, each explaining in a different language that police in the Garden State are not allowed to turn them over to federal immigration officials.

Long Hill Township Police Chief Ahmed Naga speaks in Arabic, and State Police Lt. Col. Fritz Fragé makes the pitch in Haitian Creole. And the top cop in the State Police, Col. Patrick Callahan, says in English that “we cannot do our jobs without the trust of the communities we serve.”

Under a Nov. 29 order from Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, police in the state will no longer be permitted to ask about a suspect’s immigration status or cooperate with federal immigration officials in other ways. It’s said to be an effort to win the trust of immigrants in the state. But it comes at the expense of the relationship with federal law enforcement officials, who have blasted the policy and vowed to step up their own enforcement in response.

With the new policy, which the videos aim to explain, New Jersey becomes one of a growing number of states and cities seeking to distance itself from the Trump administration’s immigration agenda.

Especially in those where Democrats control law enforcement, states have moved to distance themselves from the job of federal immigration enforcement. Several Democratic candidates for attorney general campaigned on not cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some already in office have gone to court to challenge local police’s partnerships with ICE.

“There’s both a political groundswell toward making sure that state and local police don’t do the job of federal immigration enforcement and a growing understanding that the Constitution doesn’t permit” it, said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst with the American Immigration Council, an immigrant advocacy group.

Icy response

Grewal, the son of Indian immigrants who Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy nominated early last year, got a head start on the crop of his peers who will take office in January. The directive, which goes into effect March 15, prohibits state and local police from asking about a suspect’s immigration status under most circumstances, sharing resources and information with ICE or allowing the agency to question someone arrested on a state charge unless the suspect is advised of their right to an attorney.

ICE responded by vowing to increase its own presence in the state, which would include more arrests of otherwise law-abiding immigrants whose federal offense is that they are in the country illegally.

“The New Jersey Attorney General’s decision to further limit law enforcement’s ability to cooperate with ICE undermines public safety and hinders ICE from performing its federally-mandated mission,” said Matthew Albence, deputy director of ICE, in a statement. “Ultimately, this directive shields certain criminal aliens, creating a state-sanctioned haven for those seeking to evade federal authorities, all at the expense of the safety and security of the very people the New Jersey Attorney General is charged with protecting.”

Additional ICE activity could undermine the stated purpose of the directive, increasing trust of local law enforcement among immigrants.

Through a spokesman, Grewal declined an interview request for this article. The spokesman, Peter Aseltine, also declined to make any other official available for an interview.

Chia-Chia Wang, an organizer and advocate for immigrants in Newark, said much will depend on what else local officials do to promote the new policy and make sure immigrants understand it. The attorney general’s office has been active in talking to local police, but training and outreach ultimately falls to local officers.

“Intentional outreach needs to be done — bilingual, bicultural,” Wang said.

The move also puts the state at risk of losing federal public safety grants, as the administration tried to do after California passed three laws limiting state officials’ cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.

The Justice Department has released some grant funding to California after a federal judge ruled in the state’s favor in October. But the federal government is still withholding some grants over the state’s immigration laws, attorneys for California said in court papers Friday.

The suits have said the federal government is seeking to require local and state enforcement of federal immigration law. In the California case, U.S. District Court Judge William H. Orrick said the DOJ policy was unconstitutional because it required states to enforce federal law. It also violated Congress’ power to control funding, he said.

Federal lever

But providing or withholding spending has traditionally been an effective way for the federal government to encourage state-level policies, said Matthew Wilson, an associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

“The main lever that the federal government has is the denial of funding,” he said.

States and local governments that cooperate with ICE have also seen legal challenges. A Colorado judge ruled Dec. 6 that a sheriff violated the state’s constitution and law by keeping a prisoners in jail after they posted bail only because ICE requested they be held.

There’s also evidence the electoral politics of the issue may be shifting.

Several sheriffs’ races centered on the issue in 2018, with voters rejecting incumbents who favored cooperation with ICE, he said. In Oregon, voters rejected a statewide ballot measure to overturn the state’s long-standing policy against cooperation with ICE.

And Democratic candidates for attorney general won their races with campaigns that rejected Trump immigration policies. Phil Weiser in Colorado and William Tong in Connecticut said they would back measures allowing local law enforcement not to cooperate with ICE. Winners in attorney general races in Illinois, New York and Michigan also said immigration enforcement shouldn’t be the job of state and local officials.

But those gains came in a good year for Democrats, especially those energized by opposition to Trump. The issue may play better among Democratic voters now, but in general, sanctuary jurisdictions are unpopular, Wilson said.

“I think it still is, in the broader electorate, a liability for Democrats,” he said. “I think the majority of Americans react negatively the idea of sanctuary cities because people are uncomfortable with the idea that in certain jurisdictions the law is simply not enforced.”

The New Jersey directive says the policy does not amount to “sanctuary” because the state will continue to enforce criminal laws, regardless of immigration status, and does not stop federal officials from enforcing federal law. But the term is generally understood to mean protection of immigrants in the country illegally.

The popularity among Democratic voters is in part a reaction to the Trump administration’s focus on it, Reichlin-Melnick said.

“I think in many ways that the Trump administration’s obsession with sanctuary cities, [former U.S. Attorney General] Jeff Sessions’ obsession with sanctuary cities has backfired,” he said.

The issue wasn’t always as partisan. The 11-year-old New Jersey directive that Grewal’s will overturn was put in place by a Democratic attorney general, who’d been appointed by Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. And fewer Democrats seemed to oppose state and local law enforcement helping federal immigration officers when it was Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration that was asking.

But Trump, whose base-playing campaign and presidency has focused on immigration more than other issues, has helped polarize it.

“Everything in the age of Trump is more polarized than it used to be,” Wilson said. “It has become such a kind of hot-button, for-him-or-against-him issue with regard to Trump that people who don’t like Donald Trump may be pushed leftward on the immigration issue just as a way of signaling their difference from the president.”

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