NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — After many impassioned pleas from residents and at least one rewrite, the Board of Chosen Freeholders has adopted a policy barring Middlesex County officers from aiding federal immigration authorities in most cases.
The board voted 6-0 to approve the policy on Thursday, June 1, in New Brunswick. A few dozen pro-immigrant activists there applauded the move. But they also asked county officials to consider implementing even stronger protections.
As they worked to write the policy, Middlesex officials said they hoped it would safeguard both undocumented immigrants and the county from potential legal battles.
“This is the intent of the current freeholder board, and hopefully it will remain this way,” Freeholder Shanti Narra, who led the creation of the new policy, said during the meeting.
The policy governs interactions between the county’s adult jail and sheriff’s department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of Homeland Security charged with deporting undocumented immigrants.
Middlesex County has one of the state’s largest populations of undocumented immigrants, activists said. New Brunswick alone is estimated to harbor at least 20,000, they said.
“It’s a good sign overall,” Tracy Cangiano, who lives in Highland Park, said of the policy “and I hope that after there’s an affirmative vote on this, that these policies and procedures that keep getting talked about … continue to be worked on.”
Residents from Franklin Township attended the meeting as well. "We are hoping to also get a policy here in Somerset," Franklin Township resident and activist Linda Powell said.
The policy forbids the jail and the sheriff’s department from complying with 48-hour civil detainer requests. ICE agents submit these forms when a jail or law enforcement agency has in custody someone the feds suspect of being in the country illegally. The requests are voluntary, which means local agencies may ignore them, according to the county.
But two situations exist in which county staffers must honor the ICE’s detention requests, according to the policy.
That includes when the individual in question has been convicted of a first- or second-degree “serious offense,” or the equivalent in another jurisdiction, the policy states. More than 20 crimes fit this bill—from murder, aggravated assault and arson to recruiting gang members, selling drugs and human trafficking.
The other scenario in which county officers must hold people on behalf of ICE is when the agents present a final order of deportation signed by a federal judge, according to the policy.
A young man speaks in favor of policies and protocols protecting undocumented immigrants.
What has perhaps energized activists most in recent weeks is ICE’s ability to interview suspected undocumented immigrants at the county jail.
In the policy, the freeholders said they will continue to grant ICE access to the facility. But jail staffers will provide targeted individuals with a “written fact sheet” outlining their rights prior to the interview, according to the policy.
Freeholders said they also intend to launch a “language line” to ensure inmates can understand the information, even if they can’t read. That protocol, however, isn’t in the policy, a fact that troubled some residents.
Sheriff’s officers may not “in any way assist” ICE employees in detaining someone who’s not in county custody, according to the policy. The exceptions? If it’s “necessary” to arrest someone for a “crime in progress” or in the “immediate interest of public safety,” according to the policy.
This became another pressure point for immigrants’ rights advocates, who claimed that at least one Middlesex County sheriff’s officer helped ICE detain a man in the courthouse this spring. County officials said they’re looking into the incident, but they had yet to have interviewed the employee in question.
Speakers wondered whether “public safety” was too broad a term, while county officials said the condition is necessary to maintain order.
Some members of the public who spoke took issue with 48-hour detainers being granted based on prior convictions.
Convicts are capable of rehabilitating, they said, and society already has protections against dangerous individuals. Some argued that the setting such boundaries makes the policy too vague.
“I am concerned that this policy classifies people as deserving of constitutional protections and people who are not,” one woman said.
County officials said the benchmark isn’t arbitrary. They based the criteria on crimes that the federal government considers an automatic cause for deportation, Narra said.
She added that each listed offense—like drugs, for instance—is serious.
“You would have to have an awful lot of weed,” she said in response to a resident who was concerned about small amounts of marijuana or cocaine tearing addicts or recreational users from their families.
Lawyers and leaders for several activist groups, like the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, Food and Water Watch and the Alliance for Immigrant Justice, praised the policy during the meeting. But they added that, at least in the eyes of the county’s undocumented population and its activists, the adopted policy should serve as a starting point, not a finish line.