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Dozens Demand Pro-Immigrant Policies, Sanctuary at City Council Meeting

Pro-immigrant activists prepare to speak during the New Brunswick City Council's Feb. 15 meeting.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — The push for the city to “codify” its pro-immigrant stances continued last night, Feb. 15, as a standing-room-only crowd packed a New Brunswick City Council meeting that went on for hours.

About 35 people, including residents and outside activists, urged New Brunswick officials to adopt “concrete” polices and issue written directives to ensure that police won’t detain undocumented immigrants based solely on that status. They also said the city must formalize its practice of not participating in raids or sharing information with federal immigration authorities.

“Do everything in your power to protect the peace of our city, and then do more,” Charles Hansen, a resident of New Brunswick’s Fourth Ward, said. “Now is the time to stand for morality, and now is the time to bring morality into law.”

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Some people said New Brunswick ought to label itself a “sanctuary city.” That title typically applies to places that take a hard-edged approach to shielding undocumented immigrants from detention and deportation efforts.

These anxieties cropped up during the rise of President Donald Trump. He successfully campaigned on a promise to secure the country’s southern border and deport undocumented immigrants.

But his vision has outraged and frightened some people, including many in New Brunswick, which has become a hotbed of dissent.

While it’s unclear how many undocumented immigrants live in the majority-liberal city, a Rutgers report from 2011 suggested nearly 40 percent of New Brunswick’s residents were immigrants.

“We’re living in really scary times,” said Mariah Wood, who lives on George Street, “and while we’re busy dragging our feet, the Trump administration is making it easier to persecute the weakest among us. And that’s not all right.”

Last night’s pro-immigrant chorus came roughly one week after residents protested and delivered a letter signed by 50 activist groups to the city clerk. In the letter, the groups demanded Mayor Jim Cahill take a number of policy actions to serve and safeguard New Brunswick’s undocumented population.

In response, Cahill issued a letter that described how his administration has already put in place most of the actions and is working on another, the launch of a municipal ID system. He also denounced any “misrepresentations” that could divide the city and “erode” trust.

The exchange began when a member of Cahill’s administration reportedly said New Brunswick is not a sanctuary city, and its police department follows state and federal policies surrounding immigration. The mayor’s office has since suggested the story was misleading.

Much of last night’s conversation focused on what activists believe to be a lack of engrained policy on undocumented immigrants. Speakers said codified regulations are essential for several reasons, including the chance of turnover in the mayor’s office or on the dais.

Cahill, who did not attend the meeting, has said his pro-immigrant policies are set in stone. Council members in attendance pointed to his letter as proof of such policies when pressed to either implement formal measures or convince the mayor to do so.

“There’s a difference between a letter, which is expressing sentiment, and a binding policy that can be enforced,” Matt Smith, an organizer for Food and Water Watch in New Brunswick, said.

At this time, it’s unclear whether a policy barring city cops from assisting immigration authorities or participating in raids exists beyond the mayor’s words. The municipal code apparently contains no such law, but it might be set through a police directive or an order from the mayor.

Councilperson Rebecca Escobar told the crowd she would look into the matter.

Beyond policies, many speakers pressed the council to declare New Brunswick a sanctuary city. Neighboring Highland Park is considering the move, and nearby cities like Jersey City, Newark and East Orange have already taken the step.

Trump has said so-called sanctuary cities may not be eligible to receive certain federal grants.

Activists last night said the title would assure undocumented immigrants that New Brunswick has their back. Donning the title might also show solidarity with existing sanctuary cities and encourage others to follow suit, speakers said.

“Ambiguity and doubt make life harder,” one man said. “ ‘Sanctuary city’ is a term we all understand. If it’s all the same, why not use it?”

City officials last night said they agree on principle with the concerns and aspirations of the speakers. Cahill put forward that point in his letter, as well.

Council President Glenn Fleming said he couldn’t offer a timeline as to when or if the city would act on recommendations from the audience. But officials plan to look into their concerns, he said.

“We’re in an exploratory phase right now,” he said, assuring the speakers that New Brunswick welcomes its immigrants and fights on their behalf.

Some speakers urged the city to reach out to its undocumented immigrant population. They called for officials and residents to come together under Trump, a point well taken by officials.

Two Spanish-speaking immigrant leaders, talking through a translator, said the city has done that for years. They pointed to officials’ help in improving community-police relations and passing legislation regarding wage theft.

Escobar, a Latina councilwoman, further pushed back on the idea that New Brunswick hasn’t consulted with its immigrants.

“Even before you decided to start protesting the city,” she said, “there were already people in the community working to see what we could do for our neighbors.”

Both residents and officials said they shared concerns for undocumented immigrants, the challenges they face as immigration raids across the nation and how this environment could affect the city. How to best protect them, it seems, is where a divide exists.

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