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NJ ‘Sanctuary Cities’ Say They Won't Bow to President’s Threat to Cut Federal Aid

Officials says if they capitulated, immigrants would be fearful of government and that would make policing more difficult

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Executive orders by President Donald Trump late last week that mandated deporting undocumented immigrants, building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and suspending entry to the country by refugees prompted protests around the United States, including in New Jersey — and spurred what is sure to be the first of many lawsuits.

Meanwhile, officials of New Jersey’s “sanctuary cities” say they will not capitulate to the president’s threat to use the power of the purse to punish them for providing safe havens to undocumented immigrants. One of Trump’s executive orders warned that federal grant money could be “stripped” from sanctuary states and cities that harbor illegal immigrants.

Municipal officials in such “sanctuary cities” as Newark, Jersey City, Princeton, and other towns limit their interaction with federal immigration officials and refuse to allow their police forces to be deputized by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. They say they will continue to resist federal efforts to force their cooperation because it would make policing their communities more difficult and could endanger local health and the economy by making immigrants fearful of government.

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Rolando Lavarro, president of the Jersey City Council, said Wednesday that the city is and would remain a “safe haven for immigrants.” The council already had signaled that message in November by way of a resolution, because “many of the members of our community were frightened and scared of what the prospects” would be under an incoming Trump administration, Lavarro said. Trump had made aggressive enforcement of immigration law, including the deportation of millions, a central plank of his election campaign.

The exact number of communities in New Jersey considered “sanctuary” or “welcoming” cities is difficult to know because no one keeps an official tally and because some cities that have been identified as sanctuaries on lists published by immigration-control groups dispute the label. However, several New Jersey communities — including Jersey City, Newark, Maplewood, East Orange, and Princeton — have passed, or are in the process of passing, resolutions that declare them open to immigrants, meaning they are restricting the circumstances under which local officials can ask about someone’s immigration status. In most cases, it also means they will not honor detainer requests from ICE. Those requests generally ask that someone who has been arrested be held in jail until ICE can determine his or her immigration status.

In addition, all but three New Jersey counties have anti-detainer policies that prevent their county jails from sharing immigration information with ICE, immigration advocates say. Hudson and Monmouth counties, however, do have memorandums under the so-called 287G program, which allows ICE to deputize corrections officers in local jails as immigration enforcement officials.

Critics of the sanctuary policies say those policies allow lawbreakers to remain in the United States and stymie efforts by immigration authorities to do their job. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, one of the nation’s leading anti-immigration groups, says “sanctuary policies encourage” illegal immigration because they accommodate law-breakers and give “prospective immigrants little incentive to pursue legal paths.”

But local officials in places like Newark and Jersey City disagree. They say that asking local law enforcement to act as an extension of ICE erodes trust in law enforcement and makes policing immigrant communities difficult. “Folks who are scared of being deported won’t come forward if there are other criminal activities of serious nature near them,” Lavarro said.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said the president’s order would endanger immigrants and tear apart families, and he said his city would not reverse its position even in the face of federal threats. "Our city has a policy of protecting undocumented immigrants from deportation by U.S. immigration authorities,” Baraka said in an emailed statement. “We see no reason to change that policy.”

The city does not “hold undocumented inmates in jail” unless a detainer request is “accompanied by a judge's order,” he added.

“In Newark, we comply with federal immigration agencies, but insist that detainer requests be handled constitutionally,” Baraka said. “I hope that no president would violate those principles, the very foundation of our nation, by taking punitive action against cities that are simply protecting the well-being of residents.”

Refusing to cooperate with the Trump administration could cost each community hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal aid, although it is unclear exactly how much money is at stake.

Trump signed an executive order Wednesday afternoon — one of two focused on immigration — that allows the federal government to penalize municipalities and other local and state government agencies by withholding federal grants if they fail to cooperate with requests from federal immigration officials. Under current law, local law enforcement is only required to respond to court-issued warrants and not administrative detainers.

The second order the president signed called for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and was followed on Thursday and Friday by several orders that suspended the nation’s refugee program and banned entry by people from seven countries whose populations happen to be Muslim-majority. Federal judges in four districts issued stays of the ban on Saturday and Sunday, as advocates for refugees and immigrants protested at airports, including Newark Liberty International.

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) introduced parallel legislation (H.R. 83) to the anti-sanctuary executive order. The bill, which has been sent to the House Judiciary and House Oversight and Government Reform committees, would strip federal aid from cities for at least a year if they are determined by the Department of Justice to be restricting federal access to information regarding an individual’s citizenship or immigration status.

Lavarro said that a full accounting of federal funding would be needed before he could say how much was at stake for Jersey City. But he added that it would be “significant.”

“A lot of our social services are funded through (federal Community Development Block Grants) and a lot of health programs are through federal funding,” he said. “So, with those, there potentially is a significant amount.”

At the same time, it is unclear whether the Trump administration can withhold funding unrelated to immigration as punishment for non-compliance, or whether municipalities, counties and states can be compelled to act as de facto immigration officials.

Ari Rosmarin, public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the executive order is an “invitation to litigation.”

“Most of the towns that have adopted anti-detainer policies have done so in an effort to follow the constitution,” he said. “There is a lot of evidence that says that local governments are not responsible and not obligated to violate constitutional rights to honor a request from ICE. Towns are liable if they hold someone inappropriately.”

He called the president’s order on sanctuary cities a real threat to poorer communities that rely on federal housing, education, and other aid, though “there is supposed to be a nexus between the funding stream and the funding.” Commenting less than three hours after Trump signed the order, Rosmarin said it was too soon to know whether the threat of funding cuts unrelated to immigration might be an issue.

More importantly, he said, the immigration orders — which in addition to penalizing sanctuary cities, also call for expanded deportations and construction of a wall along the border with Mexico — will have real and immediate impacts on immigrants and refugees, and that the immediate focus will need to be “to put the brakes on the executive order and to throw whatever wrench in the gears we can.”

“Whether or not the Supreme Court gives its blessing to this, we have to focus on the very real and tangible fears that are spreading through the Muslim, refugee and immigrant communities,” Rosmarin said.

U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12), whose district includes Trenton, Princeton, and Plainfield — where there are sizable immigrant communities — was critical of the executive order on sanctuary cities, saying it would “hamstring local law enforcement with the responsibilities that we entrust to our federal partners,” especially because many local police departments “are struggling with limited resources and officer shortages.”

“Immigration enforcement is a federal duty,” she said in an email statement. “We must remember that immigrants in our communities at times represent populations that have escaped political turmoil and life threatening circumstances. Sanctuary cities extend the safety and security we expect from our police officers in neighborhoods nationwide but in no way protect those who violate the law or create unsafe conditions for their neighbors — citizen or immigrant.”

Coleman, who is a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, opposes the Barletta bill.

“I voted against a similar bill last Congress, and I am strongly opposed to this legislation,” she said. “If the bill proceeds, I would ask why the House refuses to consider comprehensive immigration reform and is instead focused on coercing local governments into cooperating with the president’s delusional and inhumane deportation plans.”

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