Gubernatorial Candidates Talk Undocumented Immigrants, Legalized Pot

Colleen O'Dea | May 31, 2017 | Elections 2017
What is it that separates the candidates from both parties on these two pressing topics?

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This story is part of a regular series exploring where the candidates stand on major issues and assessing key considerations in this year’s elections. Follow these links for look at the hottest district races; an overview of the legislative landscape; the candidates’ plans to ease New Jersey’s fiscal crisis; why the Democrats favor single-payer healthcare; and the reasons the Republicans are cool on the ACA replacement bill.

Two of the hottest topics in the run-up to the gubernatorial primaries are undocumented immigration and the legalization of marijuana. To make a general observation, the Democratic candidates tend to be more liberal in their approach to both. The Republicans are more likely to adhere to the laws on the books, although there is some interest in reworking those laws. But to get a real sense for what the candidates believe, it’s necessary to explore their statements and stands individually. The differences can be subtle, but they are there.

Immigration and undocumented residents

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The Democrats hold similar positions on immigration and undocumented residents; the latter has become important in New Jersey in reaction to the Trump administration’s stepped up efforts to track down and deport the undocumented. About a dozen New Jersey cities— including Newark and Jersey City — have declared themselves sanctuaries or affirmed previous decisions not to help federal immigration agents arrest or detain undocumented immigrants who have not been accused of violent crimes. The issue has bubbled up to the governor’s office and Legislature, since Trump’s executive order to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities prompted legislation that would have the state budget make up for lost federal funds. That executive order has been halted by a federal judge but is sure to come up again. There have also been calls to make New Jersey a sanctuary state.

Phil Murphy, the former Goldman Sachs executive who also served as U.S. ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, said he would protect all immigrant students or young adults who came here as minors, allowing them to attend New Jersey state schools at in-state tuition under the New Jersey Dream Act. He would also prohibit the use of state police to help with large-scale deportations, as well as oppose the use of local police for such efforts.

“For New Jersey to succeed in the 21st century and for all of us to thrive, we need to continue to be a state that welcomes people who want to come here to work hard, contribute to our economy, and get ahead, and not close ourselves off from the world or turn our backs on our neighbors,” he said.

Murphy also supports providing driver’s licenses and ID cards to undocumented residents, allowing undocumented college students to apply for in-state financial aid, and giving immigrants access to professional licenses.

‘Egregious’ policies

Jim Johnson, a former assistant treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton, called Trump’s policies “egregious” and said he would create an immigration council to ensure people have adequate legal representation and equal access to education and healthcare and to ensure municipalities aren’t stripped of needed federal funds.

He would also see that immigrants can get driver’s licenses and other forms of identification and access to financial aid. And Johnson pledged to “protect funding for municipalities that are considering becoming a sanctuary city.”

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Middlesex lawyer probably best known for his chairmanship of the committee that investigated the Bridgegate scandal, called for making New Jersey “a sanctuary so immigrants can live in this state and thrive and succeed.” He introduced a bill, A-4611, to essentially do that.

“The vast majority of our immigrant brothers and sisters do not have criminal backgrounds … they work hard,” according to Wisniewski’s website. “They contribute more than a half billion dollars annually to our economy by paying taxes and purchasing goods.”

Opposing Trump on undocumented students

Wisniewski also co-sponsored an Assembly resolution (AR-210), that opposes Trump’s actions to rescind the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that essentially defers the deportation of undocumented students while in school and called on Gov. Chris Christie to urge Trump to let these students stay in school in the country. And his tuition-free college plan would also apply to undocumented students.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a longtime Union County legislator, said he would protect children who are citizens from being separated from their parents. He also would give driver’s licenses to the undocumented. Lesniak, who co-sponsored the New Jersey Dream Act in 2013, would also make college aid available to low-income immigrant students.

“America is a land of immigrants, built by immigrants, defended by immigrants, and economically prospered by immigrants,” said Lesniak, adding he is proud to be a member of Stand Up For The Other, an organization that vows to confront racial bigotry, religious persecution, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hatred.

Sanctuary NJ

Bill Brennan, a former fireman and activist who tried to sue Christie over Bridgegate, said he supports making New Jersey a sanctuary state to “prevent a divide being created between police departments” and communities.

Tenafly Council President Mark Zinna, whose hometown and local school district have declared themselves sanctuaries, said he also supports making New Jersey a sanctuary state “because doing the right thing can be very dangerous sometimes but … we have to do what’s right.”

The GOP on the undocumented

The Republicans’ take on the issue was significantly different, saying it is more important to follow the law.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a former Monmouth County sheriff, said she opposes having “families torn apart” by the deportation of one or more members, but refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials is not a viable option. Instead, she would work with local faith-based groups, county and local officials, and the congressional delegation to try to find solutions to the problem.

“I am absolutely opposed to sanctuary cities on any level for any reason,” she said. “It puts law enforcement officers at risk.”

Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, a Somerset County business owner, said the establishment of sanctuary areas could “encourage illegal immigration” into the state.

‘The worst possible problem’

“I think this is the worst possible problem at the worst possible time,” he said. “We have an illegal immigration problem” and the establishment of sanctuary cities could make that worse.

Ciattarelli criticized Democrats who said they would have the state reimburse places that lose federal aid as a result of sanctuary status, asking, “where do you get that money?”

Steve Rogers, a Nutley commissioner and retired police officer, was also absolutely opposed to sanctuary cities.

“As governor I will oppose the establishment of such cities and deny any city established as a sanctuary city funding that is eliminated from the federal government,” he said. “Furthermore, I will direct my attorney general to begin the process of prosecuting any elected official who breaks the law with regard to this issue. No politician is above the law. We will obey the law and follow federal guidelines.”

Hirsh Singh, an engineer and business executive, said the establishment of sanctuary cities or making the state a sanctuary is just a short-term solution that traps immigrants in whatever “bubble” is safe, because once they leave, they are subject to detention and possible deportation.

“The leadership needs to come from D.C.,” he said. “Having bubbles and making us locally have laws that contradict the federal government is not a smart move.”

Passionately opposed

Joseph Rudy Rullo, a landscape contractor, is passionately opposed, with an extensive position on this issue, which he says has hurt his own business, on his website.

“Illegal immigration destroyed the landscaping industry for legal businesses following the laws, and is just as devastating to New Jersey jobs,” according to Rullo. “Our police are overburdened, with hands virtually tied … As governor I will implement E-Verify (an Internet-based system that lets businesses determine if an employee is eligible to work in the U.S.) for all employees working in New Jersey and work with President Donald Trump to eliminate sanctuary cities across New Jersey. Everyone must follow the same rules in business and follow the law.”

Pot policies

The law of the land, and of New Jersey, currently makes marijuana illegal, except for medical use. That has been changing elsewhere, though, as eight states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Two Democrats earlier this month introduced bills, S-3195 and A-4872, to legalize marijuana use by those age 21 and older. Christie continues to oppose such efforts, but a new governor could make pot legal.

All the Democrats running pledged to be that governor. Once again, Republicans take a different view.

Lesniak had been a holdout until recently, saying he backed decriminalizing the substance, meaning possession is still illegal but it brings only a civil fine and not a criminal conviction. But he said not long ago that he changed his mind after reading a report mapping out how to make sure minors are not “exposed to it or enticed by it” and now also supports full legalization.

Freeing the police

Murphy said legalizing marijuana would give police the ability to focus on more serious crimes.

Johnson pledged to legalize the substance in a “safe and regulated manner.”

Wisniewski takes a slightly more cautious approach. He said he would “move for the decriminalization of marijuana, eliminate jail time for possession, and create a legal framework for legalization.”

Calling the war on drugs “a failure,” Zinna said he, too, would legalize marijuana for recreational, as well as medicinal, purposes.

Brennan said a legalized marijuana and hemp industry “will bring much-needed jobs, tax revenue and economic activity to New Jersey while reducing unnecessary expenses” for policing, adding, “The existing untaxed multibillion-dollar black market must be legalized and taxed.”

Backing decriminalization

Guadagno supports decriminalization, but not legalization, as that could “put all New Jersey at risk” after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he would be tougher in cracking down on drug offenses. She did say she wanted to streamline and broaden the state’s medical marijuana program.

Ciattarelli said he would support decriminalization of marijuana, but is not yet sure what that would mean.

“We have to have a discussion about what recreational use/possession is,” he said, saying the 50 gram-threshold in the pending bill “sounds like an awful lot of pot to me.”

GOP legalization

Two of the five GOP candidates agreed with the Democrats and support legalization.

Singh spelled out a number of conditions for making the drug legal: regulate and tax the drug like alcohol; redirect law enforcement to fight more serious crimes; and treat drug addiction as a public health problem.

Rullo said he has backed legalization for two years, endorsing the change on announcing his run for governor in 2015. He would earmark a portion of the tax revenue from sales to the Transportation Trust Fund and the pension funds and said this would help lower property taxes. Rullo would tax the drug at the same rate as the sales tax. He would also remove fees and taxes from medical marijuana and expand the use of the substance for all “practical” medical purposes.

“It would be an economic boom for farmers as I support New Jersey-grown marijuana only,” Rullo said. “I also support expanding into the hemp industry.”

Rogers took the toughest stance, saying he supports legal marijuana use for medical purposes only.