NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Despite being applauded by pro-immigrant advocates for their new policy on federal immigration detainer requests, the elected officials of Middlesex County insist it should not be considered a policy of "sanctuary."
Freeholder Director Ronald G. Rios, who leads the county’s Board of Chosen Freeholders, announced at their October 26 meeting that the county does not consider itself a “sanctuary county” for its immigrant population, and will cooperate with federal immigration officials under specific circumstances.
“I just want to make some comments in reference to some published reports that Middlesex County has declared itself a sanctuary county. That is totally not true,” Rios said.
The county's jail and its Sheriff's Department will sometimes honor a “detainer request” from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, and keep certain immigrants in county custody for an extra 48 hours beyond what is legally allowed for a U.S. citizen.
“By honoring these detainer requests the county has, as its primary goal, the protection and public safety of our residents,” said Rios.
The policy that the Freeholder Board adopted on June 1 expands upon one they passed in 2014, which lessened the degree of cooperation with ICE's detainer requests.
As we reported, prior to the adoption of the latest policy, the Middlesex County Sheriff's Department had come under fire for apparently assisting ICE in making arrests inside the County Courthouse, a practice that is frowned upon because it makes it less likely that defendants, victims, and witnesses will show up for court.
The county says it will only honor ICE's detainer request if an inmate “has previously been convicted of a first or second degree offense, or was a subject of a final order of deportation signed by a federal judge.”
“If an inmate has not been previously convicted of a first or second degree offense, or been the subject of a previous order of deportation, the county will not hold an inmate past their release date.”
Rios said that the county would be in danger of “liability claims of false imprisonment” if the individual is acquitted of his or her charges.
“The county’s responsibility, in these instances, is to protect the county taxpayers against such liability claims.”
The meeting was held several days after ICE officials cracked down on Middlesex County, arresting 36 immigrants. The federal agency then released a statement to the media touting the arrests and slamming the county for its policy.
Rios' assurances didn't stop Republican candidate for Governor Kim Guadagno from claiming that "Middlesex County is a sanctuary county" as the election approached.
Guadagno, who served as Governor Chris Christie's Lt. Governor for eight years, went on to lose the election to Democrat Phil Murphy who frequently spoke of his desire to make New Jersey a "sanctuary state."
Meanwhile, critics viewed the ICE sweep as a series of “retaliatory actions” against the county for adopting a legal policy that they view as not being strict enough in its crackdown of the immigrant population.
Ellen Whitt, an activist from the “Coalition Against Endless War,” voiced similar concerns to the Board of Freeholders.
“What is frightening to me…is that ICE, angry that it could not veto the rule of law, openly decided to retaliate against our county,” she said.
Whitt, who belongs to the Detention and Immigration Response to Emergency Team (DIRE), knows several of the arrested individuals personally and expressed our county’s need to “start putting a human face to the trauma ICE inflicts on our community.”
One of the immigrants picked up in the sweep, according to Whitt, “is a 62-year-old grandmother… who struggles with serious health issues. She left her country after the murder of her brother 17 years ago.”
While the grandmother is currently on probation following a one-time incident, “the Middlesex County courts found that she was no threat to the community, and stated as such in their judgment,” Whitt explained.
“She is languishing in an immigration detention center, now facing possible deportation to a country where she no longer has any family or any connections.”
Even though many of the immigrants rounded up by ICE fall into the same category of those with little or no criminal history, ICE frequently touts its arrests, citing specifics only for the most egregious offenders.
“The great majority of those arrested as part of this operation were either residing or working in the county and had prior convictions or criminal charges,” ICE spokesperson Luis Martinez wrote. “These results clearly reflect the continued prioritization of enforcement resources on aliens who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security.”
But the federal agency's press release on the 36 arrests they made only noted nine individuals had been convicted of crimes, two of which were for solely for drug offenses, and another two solely for driving under the influence.
Another six individuals were currently facing criminal charges, but had not been convicted, meaning that as many as 21 of the 36 arrestees could have had completely clean records.
When an East Brunswick resident took to the microphone at a Freeholder meeting in December to question the board about their policy, Rios doubled-down on the claim that its policy is not equivalent to "sanctuary," a term that has no specific meaning and often varies in how it is used by opponents and proponents of the policy.
"We never labeled ourselves as a sanctuary county. That title never came up. It does not exist," said Rios.
"Can you explain why it is labeled as a sanctuary county?" asked the man.
"Well, maybe some political people, or maybe people in the federal government, are not happy with our policy and they say that we are a sanctuary county," Rios responded.