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OP-Ed: In Face of Federal Threats, NJ Should Welcome Immigrants

Given the threat of mass deportations, New Jersey families are looking to local governments for resistance that is based in common sense and public safety

erika nava
Erika J. Nava

As the presidential inauguration approaches, immigrants and advocates across the country — including in New Jersey, the state with the third-largest share of immigrants — are preparing for a very real threat: mass deportations. New Jersey families are looking to local governments to lead a charge of resistance that is rooted in common sense and public safety, not fear mongering. Here’s how.

Throughout the president-elect’s campaign, he falsely linked undocumented immigrants with crime while pledging to crack down on “sanctuary cities.” While there is no single definition of what “sanctuary” means, it typically refers to cities, towns, counties, and even states that limit their voluntary involvement with federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportations. This can take many forms. It can be outlined in a police department’s policy, passed via ordinance, or be an executive policy directive — with local law-enforcement approval — that clearly prohibits police officers from asking about anyone’s immigration status.

In addition, as part of a sanctuary policy, police departments or jails might honor the Constitution by declining to honor requests from immigration agents to hold undocumented persons behind bars to turn them over to ICE. Declining these legally dubious “ICE holds” means that people are released once the criminal justice process is complete and not endlessly warehoused in jails. This practice avoids costly lawsuits for violating basic constitutional rights. Anti-detainer policies are not limited to big cities but have been adopted in rural Kansas and in suburban Princeton, New Jersey.

In his anti-immigrant speeches, Trump regularly failed to mention that “sanctuary cities” are supported by many police departments. In other words, the police chiefs Trump praises at his rallies are the same ones he is going after when he labels sanctuary cities bad for public safety. In fact, an association of chiefs and sheriffs of the 68 largest law enforcement agencies in the United States has declared that requiring them to participate in immigration enforcement “would undermine the trust and cooperation between police and officers and immigrant communities, which are essential elements of community-oriented policing.” It’s no surprise that so many local law enforcement officials feel this way, since having local police departments become agents for ICE also diverts attention, time, and resources from their primary role of protecting their community from real criminals.

And despite the president-elect’s assertions, a “sanctuary city” is not a safe haven for criminals. In fact, there is zero evidence of any link between crime and immigration status. Without evidence, anti-immigrant leaders are left to cherry-pick random and extreme anecdotes in order to paint a scary picture of immigrants. The one certain result of these unsupported charges is to push immigrant communities further underground and dissuade them from reporting crimes and serving as witnesses. This is hardly a public-safety strategy.

For local communities, becoming a sanctuary promotes inclusion of all residents, regardless of immigration status, and respects everyone’s privacy. This includes not asking residents about their immigration status, or unnecessarily retaining such information in city databases. This helps explain why the eight cities in New Jersey that allow its residents to apply for municipal IDs, for example, do not keep supporting documents.

Despite the threats of the president-elect, some experts suggest that eliminating federal funding to sanctuary cities would be unconstitutional and halted by the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility and struck down attempts to force states or localities do federal jobs as a violation of the anti-commandeering clause of the 10th Amendment, which protects local government from being forced to do the federal government’s work. Simply put, in a sanctuary town, ICE agents have to do their own deportation work, not rely on local police to do it for them.

New Jersey’s local leaders should be focused on building stronger and safer communities, which includes welcoming immigrants regardless of their status. The New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice is focused on helping towns and cities understand the actions they can take to send a clear message that all their residents will be treated with dignity and respect.

When it comes to public safety, one important step cities and counties can take is to send a clear message to all residents: our job is keeping the community safe, not volunteering to become ICE agents. Counties and municipalities should enhance their privacy and nondiscrimination policies by not asking for the citizenship or immigration status of anyone unless it is required by law.

Counties and municipalities can also support their immigrant residents by establishing a fund to provide legal representation to poor residents in deportation proceedings, as well as establishing citizenship services and English classes.

Make no mistake: the threats to New Jersey’s families, its economy, and its communities are huge. Deporting all half-million or so undocumented New Jerseyans would, for example, lead the state’s economy to shrink by nearly 5 percent — the largest such drop of any state. And many families with both documented and undocumented members would be torn apart under such a plan, further destabilizing communities across the state.

In the face of these threats from D.C., the Garden State’s cities and counties have an opportunity to redefine what makes a sanctuary city. These polices are an investment in the reality that immigrants — both documented and undocumented — are huge assets to New Jersey and should be protected and nourished.

Erika J. Nava is a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, which drives policy change to advance economic justice and prosperity for all New Jerseyans through evidence-based, independent research, analysis, and advocacy.

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