By Brenda Flanagan
“Perth Amboy is a city of immigrants,” said Wilda Diaz.
And Perth Amboy’s mayor says the city welcomes all immigrants, including the undocumented. But is it a so-called “sanctuary city” — shielding them from federal agents?
“We want them to have an opportunity to feel safe in the city and have a relationship with the safety personnel. How do you define a sanctuary city,” Diaz said.
At its legal heart, it’s the interface between residents, cops and ICE — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Congressional conservatives sparked a firestorm over that issue following Kathryn Steinle’s murder in the sanctuary city of San Francisco, allegedly by a undocumented Mexican national with a criminal record.
Out campaigning, Gov. Chris Christie didn’t hold back.
“If sanctuary is supposed to protect the innocent, why have sanctuary cities become havens for crime? Sanctuary cities have to stop protecting felons in the midst of law-abiding people. That has to end,” he said.
In response, the House passed a bill that’d withhold federal law enforcement grants from sanctuary cities that refuse to collaborate with ICE. By that measure, Newark qualifies as a sanctuary. Its police generally won’t hold people for ICE, according to the ACLU.
“They say, we’re only going to keep people in jail beyond the time they should be in jail if there’s a warrant or probable cause and so Newark was the first city in New Jersey to do so two years ago,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin.
The mayor’s office wouldn’t comment. Besides Newark, five New Jersey counties also decline to detain immigrants without probable cause — Union, Middlesex, Ocean, Burlington and Camden. Moreover, New Jersey’s attorney general directs police not to request documentation from crime victims and witnesses in the immigrant community.
“I’ve had wives telling me, once their husbands are taken by immigration, their kids are terrified by police, right? And not really understanding that police is different from ICE, but also because there’s historically been that collaboration,” said Vera Parra, Newark community organizer for Faith in New Jersey.
“When somebody calls the police, they don’t want to fear that a few minutes later ICE is gonna come knocking at the door. That doesn’t help the police build trust. It doesn’t help them gather intelligence,” said Rosmarin.
“Local government, it is not their job to enforce immigration law and counties and local police should also not help support identifying undocumented immigrants,” said Chia-Chia Wang, organizer and advocacy director for American Friends Service Committee.
Police in New Jersey do check documents when anyone’s charged with an indictable offense. But the debate rages, drawing political oxygen from presidential contenders like Donald Trump and the Steinle case.
“Trump is using a tragic circumstance to punish an entire community,” said Diaz.
However you define sanctuary city or its place in immigration reform, the bill’s prospects appear uncertain in the Senate and it would find no sanctuary in the Obama White House.