Ahead of a new presidential administration, some New Jersey advocates for immigrants are urging towns to resist pressure to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), particularly its program to deputize local law enforcement to be the eyes and ears of ICE and even perform certain immigration enforcement functions. NJTV News Correspondent Michael Hill spoke with Newark Field Office Director John Tsoukaris about what it calls the 287(g) program.
Hill: John, there’s been a lot of discussion about 287(g), essentially the federal government deputizing local authorities to look out for those who may be undocumented, unauthorized. There’s growing resistance to it here in New Jersey. Do you sense that and what’s your agency doing about it?
Tsoukaris: 287(g) is a program where ICE works with state and local law enforcement agencies. Particularly in New Jersey we’re only doing the jail model which means that we’re training certain corrections officers in immigration law and procedures to assist ICE officers. And by assist I mean they identify and help process individuals who are in jail, basically serving or pending criminals sentences or serving time. If they’re deportable because they’re foreign born and were convicted of a crime or involved in criminal activity, they assist ICE in identifying those individuals and initiating removal proceedings once that individual is released from custody of that jail.
Hill: Hudson and Monmouth counties are on board with it now, Salem may be on board. Are you trying to get more counties in New Jersey to come on board with this?
Tsoukaris: Yes, we always try to increase our partnerships, expand our partnerships. I think at the end of the day this whole 287(g) program is all about public safety. These counties that are on board with us, they see the value of the program and they see that it helps identify people before they’re released onto the street to the community. So at the end of the day it’s all about public safety for their communities.
Hill: Are you finding that some county commissions, some local governments saying they don’t want this and resisting?
Tsoukaris: There’s several counties that are interested, there’s others that are not. It depends on the county.
Hill: You’ve been running fugitive operations in New Jersey for quite some time and we did a story last week that highlights this. We also did it back in May I believe as well. What it shows is not raids, not kicking in doors, knocking down doors, but you target individuals who have criminal convictions, have criminal records you’re looking for who violated the immigration laws of this country and you obviously want them removed from the country. People look at this and some people consider these raids are they effective, is this more what the president-elect will want as well?
Tsoukaris: Well, these fugitive operations are, like you said, targeted enforcement operations. We know who we’re looking for and we’re out there to arrest the individual and then that individual goes into removal proceedings before the immigration judge, which these immigration judges don’t work for DHS [Department of Homeland Security], they actually work for the Department of Justice. So again, we focus on the highest priority individuals, for example priority 1s and 2s are individuals who were convicted of a felony, multiple misdemeanors, involved in gang activity, they may pose a threat to national security. Those are the individuals that are our highest priority that we focus on within ICE enforcement and removal operations.
Hill: Big push right now on college campuses across the country and they’re talking about sanctuary zones on campus, essentially just what the word means, it’s sanctuary zones where the universities and colleges will not participate with ICE in terms of identifying those who may be here unauthorized, undocumented to have them removed. What’s your agency doing about that?
Tsoukaris: In terms of those individuals, again we only look for priority individuals and right now it’s anybody involved that poses a threat to national security, public safety or border security. We always use our discretion so just because someone is illegal and going to college here doesn’t necessarily mean that that person’s a priority for removal. But we do work with colleges. We have a new community outreach officer that just started and we’re looking to expand our outreach initiatives. We go to different schools and give presentations on what ICE ERO does and it’s been very positive and very receptive because I think when people know what ICE is all about and what immigration enforcement is all about, I think they’re more comfortable that we’re not out there just arresting anyone that’s here illegally, that we prioritize and use our discretion daily.
Hill: You have a president-elect coming into office who’s staked his campaign more or less on immigration and doing all kinds of things that have attracted a lot of attention. What are you anticipating with this president coming into office, Donald Trump?
Tsoukaris: I don’t have any insight on what the new administration will be doing in terms of immigration enforcement. I still believe that our highest priorities are going to be national security, public safety and border security. I think those will still remain, however I don’t have any insight on if the administration is going to make any new priorities or changes to the existing priorities. But at the end of the day ICE is there to execute the mission and the priorities that’s provided to us by the administration and also the Department of Homeland Security secretary.