While much of the talk about immigration and customs enforcement has focused on the nation’s borders, contentious arrests and deportations are happening in New Jersey. It’s heightened in the wake of Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s new directive scaling back local law enforcement’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, leaving some to wonder if ICE is intentionally ramping up efforts. Senior Correspondent Brenda Flanagan put that question to New Jersey’s ICE Field Director John Tsoukaris.
Flanagan: Let’s talk about ICE arrests in New Jersey. I think the last numbers that ICE put out showed 105 arrests or so over five days starting at the end of November. That was in response to the attorney general’s directive ordering local law enforcement to essentially avoid working with ICE, and I think that your office said ICE will have no choice but to conduct at-large arrests in local neighborhoods and at work sites, which will inevitably result in additional collateral arrests. Why did you feel like you had no choice except to ramp up arrests?
Tsoukaris: Well this operation was pre-planned. It wasn’t as a result of this attorney general’s directive, even though it may appear that way because of the timing. We planned this a couple months back. But in terms of going forward, when police departments or jails in the state do not refer cases to ICE to review to determine if this individual is deportable based on his criminal history, and they’re released into this community, it leaves us no choice but to go out into the community and find these individuals. So that makes it harder for everybody. It makes it harder for ICE, because then we’re going out in the community. You’re putting the community at risk because you’re releasing a lot of these criminals back into the community that they were terrorizing, and a lot of these individuals re-offend very quickly after they’ve been released from jail.
Flanagan: Well you’re calling them criminals, so let’s get down to that. As far as to who’s being arrested, the breakdown you gave was 80 percent with criminal convictions or pending criminal charges. Obviously, nobody wants violent criminals on the loose, but it looks like ICE is now arresting people who have green cards, who are legally in the country, who have past marijuana convictions — and this is at the same time that the state is considering legalizing the use of recreational marijuana. Talk about that.
Tsoukaris: This is another — I know we get a lot of questions on that. There’s no conspiracy because of the pending marijuana laws in the state to arrest people with marijuana convictions. In terms of green card holders, or lawful permanent residents, we’ve been arresting them ever since we’ve been arresting any other individuals here in the United States in violation of the law. If you’re a green card holder, if you generally have a felony conviction or several misdemeanor convictions, and you’re deportable, we’ve been arresting those individuals all the time. It’s nothing new.
Flanagan: There’s a case that just came to light, a man named Dane Foster, who’s married, father of four, has a green card — he also has a lawn business — but he had three prior marijuana convictions. He was arrested after dropping off his two-year-old at day care. According to his lawyer, this is a taxpaying, church-going businessman and now he’s been torn from his family.
Tsoukaris: I don’t know the specifics of the case, but if he has several convictions — if he’s a green card holder, they would make him deportable in the United States. He’s not being deported automatically. Everyone has a right to go before the immigration court, and the immigration judge makes that determination if the person is going to be ordered deported, or if there’s any type of relief available from deportation.
Flanagan: But when you think about the uproar over families being separated, for example down at the southern border, I mean this is a case of a family in Jersey being separated over old marijuana convictions, basically.
Tsoukaris: Yeah, I don’t know when those convictions were —
Flanagan: 2004, 2006 and 2014.
Tsoukaris: At the end of the day, if we follow the immigration laws of the United States — if they’re changed, then we’ll follow the new laws. But at this point, ICE is there to enforce the nation’s immigration laws. We focus on criminal aliens, public safety threats, but if you’re here illegally, we have to take enforcement action, pursuant to the Immigration Act.
Flanagan: Does that mean that ICE would consider him a threat, or you’re just following the rules?
Tsoukaris: We make a determination if you’re deportable. We focus on the threats. Again, I don’t know specifically the details of the case, if he’s a threat or not, but several convictions for marijuana or drugs make you deportable from the United States.
Flanagan: In terms of the rules that you’re following, I know that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions had made it clear he expected to see ICE start to crack down, as opposed to the Obama administration’s focus on a more dangerous criminal element. Does ICE have a quota?
Tsoukaris: No, there’s no quota. The only difference between the current administration and the prior, we still have the same mission to focus on the serious criminals — public safety, gang, other public safety cases. However, if we encounter other individuals as part of that operation, then we will have to take enforcement action. Whereas in the past, there was more discretion to not arrest those individuals. So that’s really the only difference. The law is the same.
Flanagan: But when you think about it, this guy was just on his way to drop off his kids at day care. It would be tough to characterize him as being any kind of danger to the community.
Tsoukaris: But if you’re here in violation of U.S. immigration law, and you have criminal convictions, you’re subject to removal. We’ll make that determination. We make the arrest, look at his history and then he goes before the immigration court. The immigration court decides on the removability of the individual.
Flanagan: One quick question. You had said ICE would arrest immigrants at work sites, and The New York Times recently reported four unauthorized immigrants at Donald Trump’s golf club in Bedminster. Is ICE investigating?
Tsoukaris: I can’t speak on that.
Tsoukaris: I’m not aware of an ICE investigation in terms of ICE ERO, enforcement and removal.