East Orange Latest City to Declare Itself a ‘Sanctuary City’

By David Cruz

The newest members of the East Orange police force reflect the diversity of this working-class city, populated as it is by immigrants from around the world, including many Muslims. No one has an accurate number of how many of East Orange’s residents are undocumented but, like most cities — big and small — in New Jersey, they are here.

“We have a large Haitian community, large Jamaican community, any part of the community is here,” said East Orange Councilman Chris James. “We also have a large Hispanic community. You know, you’ll find a little pocket of everything in the city.”

And James says many immigrants, even those who are here with all their papers in order, are expressing fear, fear that harsh rhetoric from Donald Trump is directed at them, and threatens their safety and security. But, the city council here voted this week to offer a certain level of protection by declaring East Orange a sanctuary city. Councilman James says President-elect Donald Trump’s promise of an immigration crackdown was a major motivation.

“After his saber rattling during the campaign, after everything he said, no one knew if this was actually going to become true on Jan. 20,” added James, “so the city council wanted to make sure that if he does come and sends directives to our police department that, you know, the council wanted to be on record that we don’t want our police officers using our resources to do that.”

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is working with cities on ways to bring undocumented criminals to justice. The state guidelines say specifically, after an individual has been arrested for a serious violation of state criminal law, the individual’s immigration status is relevant to his or her ties to the community.

An ICE raid took place in North Bergen recently, with cooperation of local police. But what municipalities like East Orange and others say they won’t do is turn their cops into ICE agents, hence the sanctuary city designation. But what does that mean?

The fact is that designating yourself a sanctuary city means very little, legally.

“Yeah, I mean a town can just call themselves a sanctuary city and leave it at that,” noted Craig Garcia, political director for New Jersey Working Families. “We’ve seen municipalities in New Jersey called sanctuary cities online and not even know that they were. We’re trying to push for something that has some meaning behind it. We see it as important that the municipalities are not responsible for becoming deputies of enforcing federal immigration policy. That’s the job of the federal government.”

Some cities, like Newark, don’t use the term sanctuary city, although they have passed similar ordinances. But the message is clear to the federal government and, as importantly, to residents, that if you’re here to obey the law, your local government has got your back, even if the federal government might not appear to.