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County and Activists Defend Middlesex Policy Against Attacks from ICE

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People for and against Middlesex County's policy governing interactions between its officers and federal immigration agents line up to speak at the freeholders' June 15 meeting.
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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Since Middlesex County adopted a policy forbidding, in most cases, its jail and sheriff’s department from aiding immigration authorities, the feds, national right-leaning media and local Republicans have come out against the move.

But the backlash has also re-energized the pro-immigrant activists who pushed the county to adopt the policy in the first place. Middlesex Freeholders, meanwhile, have stuck to their guns, reinforcing their support for an approach they said will protect the county from lawsuits.

The policy, which was adopted on June 1, governs interactions between the county’s adult jail and sheriff’s department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Homeland Security unit that deports undocumented immigrants.

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Under the new rules, county officers may not comply with 48-hour civil detainer requests from ICE. ICE officials submit these forms to jails and law enforcement agencies when they have someone in custody whom the feds suspect of being in the country illegally. The courts have ruled that these requests are voluntary, which means local entities may ignore them, according to Middlesex County officials.

County officers must comply with ICE’s detention requests only when the individual in question has been convicted of a first- or second-degree “serious offense” or when ICE presents a warrant signed by a federal judge, according to the policy.

The most recent push against the policy came yesterday, June 19, from ICE’s Newark office.

In a press release, the agency announced that its Enforcement and Removal Operations officers arrested two undocumented immigrants after they were released from Middlesex County’s custody. The county filed detainer requests for the two men—one a Mexican citizen and the other from India—but the county “failed to honor the requests,” according to the release.

ICE lodged the detainer requests with the county jail on May 18 and May 22, according to the release. One man is facing “state criminal charges,” while the other “has a pending criminal charge in Middlesex County,” agents said in the release.

In Middlesex, merely being charged with a crime isn’t enough for the county to hand over a person to ICE, according to the policy.

John Tsoukaris, an ICE field office director in Newark, blasted the county in a statement. He said protecting the “integrity” of the immigration system and removing “illegal aliens,” especially those with a “criminal history” are among ICE’s top priorities.

“ICE shares the county’s ultimate objective to protect public safety and national security while simultaneously preserving the critical community police bond,” Tsoukaris said. “As such, county jails that fail to work ICE put their communities at risk.”

The message was almost identical to one published by ICE shortly before the Board of Chosen Freeholders voted to adopt the policy.

Teresa Vivar, an advocate for immigrants, speaks in favor of the policy on June 15.

When TAPinto New Brunswick reported on that press release, Freeholder Director Ronald Rios accused ICE of playing politics and trafficking in rhetoric.

“We are here to serve the public, and we do so by following the law, not by reacting to political grandstanding by ICE, which is trying to strike fear into residents’ minds,” Rios said at that time.

He added that the county’s policy complies with state and federal laws. Officials are “dedicated” to keeping residents safe, he said.

But ICE’s press releases on Middlesex County have been met with fanfare by right-leaning news outlets.

Breitbart, for instance, has published several stories on the issue, labeling the area a “sanctuary county.” Middlesex hasn’t adopted that title. Rather, Breitbart attributed the label to a map put together by the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that claims to be nonpartisan but has drawn scrutiny for pushing a nativist, far-right agenda.

Much of Breitbart’s reporting appears to have been based solely on the ICE press releases, a point that has irked pro-immigrant residents in the county. What’s more, activists said, the website hasn’t reported on the details of the actual policy.

Freeholder Shanti Narra (right) was instrumental in crafting the policy.

Even so, after word of the denied detainer requests spread, county Republicans took to the freeholders’ June 15 meeting to voice their concerns. But the gathering drew a greater number of residents and activists, who defended the policy and undocumented immigrants.

“This policy does not help anyone but criminal illegal immigrants,” Mina Kolta, a Republican candidate for freeholder, said during the meeting, to boos from the audience. “You’re helping criminals.”

Rios said the county’s “utmost” priority is the health and safety of its residents.

“We do not condone behavior that’s criminal. We never will. We never have,” Kolta said. “The bottom line is that we have to protect the county from any liability, and that’s what’s important.”

Freeholders and activists pointed to court decisions that found counties’ compliance with ICE detainer requests to be against the law. Further, they said, the policy upholds undocumented immigrants’ constitutional rights.

People flooded the freeholders' meeting room on June 15 in New Brunswick.

A number of pro-immigrant activists thanked the county for adopting the policy. They said the move was both morally and legally sound. If anything, activists have said, the county should provide go even further, by not allowing ICE to conduct interviews in county jails.

“If you round up one group of people without charge because you think they deserve fewer rights than someone else, then you can rationalize rounding up the next group and then the next group,” Ellen Whitt, a Highland Park resident and well known activist, said during the meeting.

Still, some opponents of the policy criticized the county for they claimed is an act that provokes the federal government, pits county law enforcement against ICE and violates the law or spirit of the oath of office.

“I understand that many of the people that are involved in being undocumented are innocent,” Camille Clark, an East Brunswick councilwoman, said. “However, there is a legal pathway for immigration into the United States. … Modify those laws, change those laws, grandfather those laws, but don’t break the law.”

County officials again argued that their policy doesn’t violate any laws.

Some said the county is “in over [its] head” or that the policy could jeopardize federal funding.

As activists defended the policy, they also slammed what they considered to be anti-immigrant myths. Plus, they said, ICE has a surefire way to get Middlesex to comply with detainer requests.

“If ICE really had probable cause to deport someone and was really so concerned about community safety, they would get a judicial warrant,” Jessica Hunsdon of Highland Park said.

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