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Police Enact Policy on Undocumented Immigrants; Residents Wonder if It’s Enough

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This file photo shows protesters rallying for greater protections for undocumented immigrants last month outside New Brunswick City Hall.
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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — For weeks, dozens of residents have called for “written” or “codified” rules requiring city cops to not help federal immigration authorities operating in New Brunswick.

Last night, those residents appeared to have gotten what they’ve wanted. Or at least a taste of it.

During the March 1 City Council meeting, officials unveiled a policy that forbids cops from arresting or detaining undocumented immigrants, as requested by the feds, unless they have an “actual criminal arrest warrant.” Furthermore, the 4-page document reads, police may only aid immigration authorities for “tactical and safety reasons,” but can’t “take an active role” in enforcement.

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New Brunswick officials said this mandate—which was ordered by the police director and became effective on Feb. 28, the day before the council meeting—set in stone long-held practices by the department.

“There were other directives from other agencies that we followed,” New Brunswick Police Capt. J.T. Miller said, referring to guidelines set by higher-ranking law-enforcement groups. “We took the culmination of those directives and put it into this policy.”

Under the rules, New Brunswick cops must continue to check the immigration statuses of people arrested for indictable offenses and drunk driving. That’s a state requirement.

The “special operating procedure” establishes a command chain for dealing with aid requests from federal immigration authorities. When a request comes in, cops must notify the watch commander, who then makes a decision.

At the end of the shift, the watch commander must file reports on such requests to the operations division commander. The policy calls for that paperwork to be submitted even when the feds don’t come knocking.

The reason for the order stems from the need for a strong working relationship between New Brunswick police and immigrants, according to the document. Residents and activists have often used that point to argue their case.

“Without assurances that they will not be subject to an immigration investigation and possible deportation,” the policy reads, “many immigrants with critical information will not come forward, even when heinous crimes are committed against them or their families.”

The document also notes that city police don’t have the authority to arrest or detain people for immigration violations.

Many cases surrounding the status of people who are in the country illegally are built on civil laws, and police only enforce criminal statutes, according to the policy.

After a flood of questions earlier this month about whether such a written policy exists, City Council members handed out several copies of the document during the meeting. That was met with cautious applause from some residents, who were curious about the timing of the directive.

When questioned about the date the policy went into effect, some on the council said Feb. 28 simply signaled when they received the document. But Miller said the policy did indeed become concrete this week.

“There have been standards and protocols we followed in the past,” he told the crowd. “But we’ve listened to your concerns, and we’ve codified this into a new policy.”

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Most residents in attendance didn’t have much time to review the document. Some spoke during public comment to ask more questions about its contents, while others questioned if it went far enough.

“What this is basically saying is, ‘We are going to help [federal immigration authorities] if they say they really need it,’ and the wording is very vague,” Melanie Chambers said.

She further questioned Miller about how this would stop individual police officers from sharing information on undocumented immigrants with federal agents. Miller said there’s little the department can do to prevent such an action.

In the same vein, Councilwoman Suzanne Sicora Ludwig said immigration agents don’t need the city’s approval to conduct raids in New Brunswick.

While city officials said they support immigration agents removing violent criminals from New Brunswick, one resident questioned how the needle of what defines a criminal could move. For instance, he said, could that thought one day extend to an undocumented immigrant who doesn’t have papers?

Council members said they want the city to remain a welcoming community, and one that doesn’t assist in deportations except for those of criminals.

“I think we have been very clear that we support all our communities, including those who are documented and those who are undocumented,” Councilperson Rebecca Escobar said.

A number of residents praised the police order. Even so, several residents said city officials should enact laws to protect undocumented immigrants.

“Once something is statute, it needs public notice in order to be changed. There needs to be a vote on it,” a resident named Patrick Gibson said. “It’s important to dedicate this, put this on the books.”

New Brunswick police may continue to review and update the policy, according to the document.

It also calls for cops to “provide assistance in the form of information, referrals and any other basic need or social service” to residents affected by federal immigration actions.

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