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Op-Ed: Why Do NJ Democrats Give Tacit Support to Trump’s Immigration Tactics?

By their silence on county jail contracts with ICE for the detention of immigrants, politicians at every level are enabling questionable policies

Audrey Levitin
Audrey Levitin

Around the time when news of the immigration crisis on the border emerged, I was on my morning commute on the train from Orange to Manhattan. Coming up the aisle was a young mom, struggling with a toddler and a stroller. She was Spanish-speaking. The woman sitting next to me offered the mom her seat and she sat next to me with the toddler on her lap.

He was about two years old, with chubby cheeks, big brown eyes and at the age where everything about him was adorable. He was pointing out the window with great enthusiasm at everything we passed. The other commuters and I looked up from our phones and we shared a few minutes of pleasure watching the child’s innocent delight at simply being on the train.

As the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy became public, I imagined that beautiful family separated, the mom in a detention center and the little boy taken into government custody. I decided to see how I might get involved.

I didn’t have to look far. According to a report by WNYC, “County governments controlled entirely by Democrats in the most liberal parts of New Jersey are making a windfall off of President Trump’s aggressive immigration enforcement, collecting $6 million a month from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain immigrants in its county jails.” According to the online publication CityLab, Essex and Hudson counties have the second and third highest number of detainees in the country, among the 100 county jails working with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). These are districts where Hillary Clinton won by a two-to-one margin.

Remaining silent

While the Democratic base successfully flipped four congressional New Jersey seats from red to blue, county governments run by Democratic freeholders are helping enforce policies that are among the most despised by the very people who elect them to office.

The Democratic National Committee’s website asserts, “Democrats are fighting for every immigrant who feels threatened by Donald Trump’s election.” Nevertheless, Democrats — including New Jersey’s United States senators and our governor — are offering tacit support for the Trump administration’s immigration policies through their silence regarding Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties’ contracts with ICE.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) protests immigrants being detained at the private prison in Elizabeth but is silent about the public facility in Newark. I attended an interfaith meeting in Newark where Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) spoke eloquently on immigration, but he hasn’t called any attention to the Newark facility or other public jails in Hudson County holding people without bail. The same holds true for Gov. Phil Murphy, who ran on humane immigration policies, but remains silent about the immigrants being held in the public facility in Newark — which happens to be a Sanctuary City.

As an Essex County resident and a Democrat, I consider that using our county’s resources to implement this policy is an enormous betrayal. Essex County comprises among the most diverse communities in the country by way of race, ethnicity, and income. No matter the town we live in, we all share wonderful public spaces where diverse communities encounter one another in parks, concert halls, trains and buses. Commuters bond during the commute, and there are large religious communities of all faiths leading to an active interfaith life. The spirit in Essex County is the best of blue America; it’s diverse, peaceful, and dynamic.

For my part, I have been attending monthly freeholders’ meetings to object to these policies in a public forum. So far, it’s an exercise in futility. I take a number, wait to be called, speak for three minutes and if I have a question, I am promised a written response in the mail, which I never receive.

Among the requests of activists at these meetings is for a public forum to be held, focused entirely on the treatment of people in these facilities, who they are, and whether or not they have lawyers. It would be appropriate to have Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo make an appearance since he is apparently a strong proponent of these contracts and it would be good to have him explain the reasoning behind them. A freeholders’ meeting last July ended with demonstrators singing “Whose side are you on?” The freeholders left the meeting rather than respond. For the Democrats who run for election in our county and our state and who represent us in the United States Senate, the question remains “Whose side are you on?”

Audrey Levitin, a writer and West Orange resident, serves on the Refugee and Immigration Committee at Shomrei Emunah synagogue in Montclair. She also works in the nonprofit sector in New York.

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