Sussex County battles state over immigration policy

In Sussex County, the divide over the state’s directive on unauthorized immigrants is about as deep as the county is rural. Republican Assemblyman Parker Space, a lifelong resident of Wantage Township, is backing county leaders in their opposition to what they call a sanctuary state scheme.

In April, the County Freeholder Board approved a ballot question calling on the sheriff to essentially disregard state directives when it comes to unauthorized immigrants.

“It’s more or less sending a message to the governor saying that we want to follow federal guidelines. We don’t want to be imposed by Gov. Murphy’s in-state wishes, I guess you would say,” said Space.

The attorney general’s Immigrant Trust Directive was issued in November and made effective in March. It replaced decade-old rules and limited the types of voluntary assistance New Jersey’s 36,000 law enforcement officers can provide to federal immigration authorities. Proponents say it was made to strengthen trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement.

“We’re not giving sanctuary to anyone who commits a crime in the state. You break the law, regardless of your immigration status, you go to jail,” said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. “It’s explaining clearly to those who might not understand it, our most vulnerable population is our immigrant communities, that law enforcement in this state is here to help them, to protect them.”

But in several towns throughout the state, including in Sussex, leaders say voters should get the chance to decide how their law enforcement and tax dollars protect residents.

“I bet if we went to the local supermarket and ask 20 people, I don’t think you wouldn’t find anybody saying, ‘Yeah, we want this as a sanctuary county, no less a state,'” Space said.

NJTV News did that, visiting two local supermarkets and speaking to more than a dozen voters. No one disagreed.

“I agree that it should be up to the different counties. Whether or not the state has a say is a different story. But the state is the state, and it seems like some of the counties lose out,” said Vernon resident Dave Kinney.

“I do not want a sanctuary city or state,” said Wantage resident Janice, “because of the gangs that come in, because of the fact that the immigrants can’t be taken care of the way they should be taken care of or prosecuted. That’s why.”

“I think it’s a great idea and I think residents should have the chance to vote on it,” said Sparta resident Barbara Robinson.

“It’s a very small community. It’s grown over the years but it’s still a small community and we don’t want all the impacts. We don’t have the funds,” said Sparta resident Pat Teabo.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 2% of Sussex County residents are noncitizens. Some have suggested the ballot proposal is a political stunt by Sheriff Mike Strada, who’s up for reelection. Grewal sent a letter to the county clerk’s office with instruction to omit the ballot question and send a response by June 7.

“To politicize that question and to misrepresent what that directive stands for is doing a disservice to everything that we’re trying to do in this state, which is promote public safety,” Grewal said.

Space says Sussex County leaders were looking for help, so Strada sent a letter to the federal authorities asking Attorney General William Barr for guidance.

“To my knowledge they’re still waiting to hear back, but I would not be surprised when they get some help that we’re looking for,” Space said.

Sussex County leaders have asked for a 30-day extension to find an alternative proposal. The freeholder board has until August to get a public question on the November ballot.