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Senate Says Schools Will Remain ‘No-Questions-Asked’ Safe Zones for All Students

Upper chamber also resolves not to support Trump’s executive order on immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries

Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex and Passaic)
Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex)

Although the action is more symbolic than substantial, New Jersey’s state Senate yesterday sent a clear message that its Democratic majority would resist President Donald Trump’s immigration restrictions, at least on paper.

The votes on the two resolutions followed party lines, with only state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Atlantic) defecting from the Democrats. They drew impassioned pleas from Democratic lawmakers and dominated the news for the otherwise-quiet Senate session.

One measure declared that the state did not support Trump’s executive orders clamping down on immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The other cited existing law and court precedent that fortified public schools and universities as so-called safe zones, with schools required to serve all students and prohibited from even asking about students’ immigration status.

Nevertheless, how much weight each measure carries is arguable. Lawmakers acknowledged as much, even while saying the statements were nevertheless important to make.

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If nothing else, they satisfied the Democrats’ desire to take a stand against the Trump administration’s attempts to limit the flow of immigrants and especially refugees into the country.

"This is about who we are as a state and a nation, about our obligation to protect our residents," said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), a sponsor of both resolutions. "This is a New Jersey matter."

"The actions of President Trump threaten families within our communities that call New Jersey home. They threaten our core values as American,” she said. “As lawmakers it is our responsibility to protect all of New Jersey, to be a voice for those living in our communities.”

Of the two issues the measures address, school safe zones is the more contentious; the state Department of Education has regularly sent out advisories to districts reminding them of their responsibilities to serve students regardless of their immigration status.

The New Jersey office of the American Civil Liberties Union has just as regularly sent out its own warnings to districts that still don’t comply with the law. In nearly a dozen cases, the ACLU has filed suit against districts that continued to require families provide proof of citizenship, more often than not prompting quick changes.

State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) yesterday led the argument for the school resolution, citing fears from her hometown of Montclair that federal agents could conduct an enforcement sweep that would leave schoolchildren without their parents.

“I get phone calls every day from frightened mothers who are not sure to send their children to school and not sure that they would return home to a house with no parents,” she said. “It is a very real and frightening experience.”

A couple of Republicans spoke from the floor and challenged the resolution, saying Gill was promoting the state not follow federal law. One said legislators who do so were abrogating their oaths of office.

“It is encouraging local districts to ignore the rule of law,” said state Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen). “No matter your good intentions, we have laws.”

Gill reiterated that the resolution only reaffirmed what was indeed existing law. “It is not a resolution that defies the law, but one that reaffirms the law,” she said.

At a State House press conference after the vote, Democratic leaders joined with religious and community leaders to promote the need for the resolutions, even nonbinding ones.

Among them was Masjid Ibrahim, imam at the Islamic Teaching and Development Center in Newark and himself a former Newark schoolteacher. He said the law was clear about what school districts could and could not do, but he nevertheless knew the fear among families.

“There is absolutely a fear throughout the community, but especially in the schools where students think they could be questioned,” he said. “Most certainly it happens.

“This is very, very serious times, and in my opinion, dangerous times. We’re talking about separating families.”

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