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New Jersey AG moves to limit police cooperation with federal immigration enforcement

"Every New Jerseyan should be able to raise their children, go to work, and contribute to their communities without the fear that an ordinary interaction with police could derail their lives," said ACLU-NJ Senior Supervising Attorney Alexander Shalom.

Gurbir Grewal, NJ Attorney General, speaks during the New Jersey State League of Municipalities Mayor's Box Luncheon in Atlantic City earlier this month.
Gurbir Grewal, NJ Attorney General, speaks during the New Jersey State League of Municipalities Mayor's Box Luncheon in Atlantic City earlier this month.Read more(VERNON OGRODNEK / For The Inquirer)

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal has issued a sweeping directive to state, county, and local law enforcement agencies to limit the type of assistance their officers can offer federal immigration authorities.

The new rules, his office said, are designed to strengthen trust between police agencies and the state's diverse immigrant communities.

The order is intended to "draw a clear line" between the responsibilities of New Jersey's 36,000 law enforcement officers to enforce state criminal laws and the jobs of immigration agents to enforce federal immigration law. It applies to police, prosecutors, county detectives, sheriff's officers, and corrections officers, and seeks to ensure that immigrants feel safe in reporting crimes to police, according to the attorney general.

The directive marks the latest front in the war between immigration advocates who demand strict separation between state and federal law enforcement, and Trump administration officials who insist that local police must help catch undocumented immigrants. The administration has dramatically clamped down on both legal and illegal immigration — and criticized the so-called sanctuary cities that won't help ICE do its job.

Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the City of Philadelphia fought a major federal lawsuit over the administration's attempt to withhold grant money to force the city to cooperate.

In June, after a four-day trial and nearly a year of litigation, a federal judge ruled for Philadelphia, saying the city's refusal to help enforce immigration laws was based on policies that are reasonable, rational, and equitable. U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson ruled that the Trump administration's attempt to withhold about $1.5 million in federal law enforcement grant money "violates statutory and constitutional law."

Called the "Immigrant Trust Directive," Grewal's directive states that except in limited circumstances, New Jersey law enforcement officers cannot:

  1. Stop, question, arrest, search, or detain anyone based on actual or suspected immigration status.

  2. Ask people their immigration status, unless it's necessary to the ongoing investigation of a serious offense.

  3. Participate in immigration-enforcement operations conducted by officers with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.

  4. Provide ICE with access to state or local law enforcement databases, office space, or equipment, unless those resources are also available to the public.

  5. Allow ICE to interview anyone arrested on a criminal charge unless that person is advised of the right to a lawyer.

"We know from experience that individuals are far less likely to report a crime to the local police if they fear that the responding officer will turn them over to federal immigration authorities," Grewal said. "That fear makes it more difficult for officers to solve crimes and bring suspects to justice."

It's important, he added, that "no law-abiding resident of this great state should live in fear that a routine traffic stop by local police will result in his or her deportation."

ICE Deputy Director Matthew Albence criticized the attorney general's action, saying it "undermines public safety and hinders ICE from performing its federally mandated mission."

"Ultimately," he said, "this directive shields certain criminal aliens, creating a state-sanctioned haven for those seeking to evade federal authorities, all at the expense of the safety and security of the very people the NJ Attorney General is charged with protecting."

On Friday, three GOP legislators spoke out against the attorney general's action, calling it poorly considered and even dangerous.

"This initiative places undocumented immigrants above the millions of residents who are living here legally," Assemblyman Greg McGuckin said. "It creates a costly haven for those who have broken the law and are looking to evade deportation."

Assemblyman Dave Wolfe said no one can "pick and choose which laws you want to follow," and while New Jersey should be a tolerant place for all people, "that doesn't mean we should violate the law or stop hardworking immigration officials from doing their jobs."

State Sen. Jim Holzapfel – who like his two colleagues represents Ocean County – called Grewal's order "ill-conceived" and "a dangerous political statement that jeopardizes the safety of millions of our residents."

"New Jersey is a diverse and welcoming state," he said, "but without the cooperation of state and local police, individuals who should be taken off our streets will still be able to disregard the law. For the sake of the hardworking residents who live here legally, I am urging Attorney General Grewal to rethink this drastic action."

Grewal said that nothing in the directive implies that New Jersey offers "sanctuary" to lawbreakers. And nothing hampers police from complying with federal law or valid court orders, including judicial arrest warrants.

"Police officers are charged with the care and safety of all members of the community, regardless of their immigration status," Camden County Police Chief J. Scott Thomson said in a statement. "When any one group fears its police to the point where crimes and criminals are not reported, public and officer safety are gravely threatened."

The New Jersey ACLU praised the directive, saying its development incorporated voices and opinions of both immigration advocates and law enforcement officers, and will ultimately build greater trust between communities and police.

"Every New Jerseyan should be able to raise their children, go to work, and contribute to their communities without the fear that an ordinary interaction with police could derail their lives," said  Alexander Shalom, ACLU-NJ senior supervising attorney. "Because of this directive, everyone in our state can feel more secure in their rights and safer in their communities."

Importantly, the ACLU said, New Jersey jails will dramatically reduce instances where they honor immigration detainers — requests from ICE to hold someone while the agency checks immigration status — unless supported by a signed judicial warrant.

ACLU-NJ executive director Amol Sinha said that "with this directive, we can proudly answer who we are as New Jerseyans: we're a state of people who feel morally bound to stand up for the rights, dignity, and safety of everyone who lives here, no matter their country of origin or place of birth."