Gov. Phil Murphy has taken a few small steps toward making New Jersey a “sanctuary state,” as he promised during his campaign. Yet Essex County ranks among the 10 counties in the country with the most arrests of immigrants not already in police custody in the first eight months of last year made by U.S. immigration.
Essex County also ranked 20th for the number of people taken into custody from jail or prison by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from October 2017 through May 2018, the most recent date for which information was available, according to data from TRAC, a nonpartisan data research center at Syracuse University.
TRAC’s data shows ICE made 676 arrests from communities in Essex County during that period. This data includes not only people who were arrested at home or in a raid at a business, but also those who were conducting regular business at a federal office. Additionally, 1,026 immigrants were transferred from jail or prison into ICE custody.
San Bernardino, California had the most community arrests in the nation, with 982, while Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, had the most arrests from jail — 6,265.
While Essex County might seem like an unusual hotbed for ICE arrests, Newark is the home to a Department of Homeland Security field office that handles immigration services, which is where advocates suspect a good number of the Essex arrests were made. More than one in five New Jerseyans is an immigrant and the Migration Policy Institute estimates the population of the undocumented at almost 500,000, the fifth largest in the nation.
Arrests at immigration services offices
Immigrant advocates say the numbers highlight ICE’s increasing activity against immigrants wherever they are, including when they are following the rules and making required check-ins or conducting other business at an immigration services office.
“They are going to do a required check in, like we saw last year, and they are denied a stay and arrested,” said Johanna Calle of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “Or they go to an interview to finalize their case — like a marriage interview, and they are denied and arrested on the spot.”
An analysis of TRAC data shows that during the first 15 months of the Trump administration, ICE agents arrested 4,882 immigrants in New Jersey, an increase of 56 percent over the final 16 months of the Obama administration.
“It’s pretty frightening,” said Sarah Cullinane of Make the Road New Jersey. “ICE has expanded its efforts in New Jersey more so than in almost any other state.”
The policy of the Obama administration regarding immigrants was to not seek to deport those who were undocumented but had not committed any crime. President Barack Obama also put in place the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which allowed undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors and met certain other criteria to remain in the country without worrying about deportation.
Detained when dropping kids at school
But President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a platform of curbing immigration, has reversed course. While the courts have prevented him from ending DACA, his Homeland Security department has gotten more aggressive at seeking out, detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants, regardless of how long they have been in the country and whether they have a clean criminal record. Another TRAC analysis found that of those being detained by ICE on June 30, 2018, 58 percent had no criminal record and four out of five had either no record or only a minor traffic offense.
Cullinane said it has reached the point where immigrants don’t feel safe anywhere.
“We see immigrants being detained when they’re dropping off their kids at school, when they’re at the courthouse, at home at night,” she said. “ICE is increasingly targeting any individual: Green card holders, Dreamers, asylum seekers.”
She said more than a dozen of the so-called Dreamers who have enjoyed DACA protection have been picked up recently and cited a few examples: one had just made a domestic violence complaint, another was caught up in a workplace raid and still another had travelled out of the country and was arrested on returning to the U.S.
“Our state needs to make a stand,” Cullinane said, calling on officials to ensure that no taxpayer money is used to help in the arrest or detention of immigrants.
Murphy took a step in that direction in June when he signed an executive order barring state resources from being used to assist with the separation of children from their parents after news broke that border officials were doing just that when families were caught crossing the Mexican border into the U.S.
Since taking office, Murphy has not evoked the term “sanctuary state,” which created some controversy during the campaign. Sanctuaries — including Newark, Jersey City and some smaller communities — vow not to help federal agents find, arrest or detain immigrants.
Governor supports driver’s licenses for immigrants
Murphy has taken some other actions to show the state’s support for immigrants. One of his first was to announce the creation of an office that would help immigrants in need of aid. He also put $2.1 million in the state budget to provide for legal assistance to the undocumented. So far, the administration has not provided additional details about these efforts.
Dan Bryan, a Murphy spokesman, said the governor continues to support the state’s immigrants, and “while the Governor does not have authority over county-level decisions, he unwaveringly believes that the federal government should not unfairly target our immigrants.”
Murphy is also committed to taking one specific action Cullinane and others say will go a long way to helping immigrants: allowing them to get a driver’s license. A number of states allow for this.
Driving licenses will help keep immigrants off ICE’s radar because many get in trouble when stopped by police for minor infractions and are discovered to be driving without a license. Legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to get licenses is pending in Trenton.
Said Bryan, “Governor Murphy believes that New Jersey’s roads and (legal) residents will be safer if undocumented immigrants are given the opportunity to obtain driver’s licenses.”