Rebutting Morris sheriff, immigration advocates defend sanctuary status to freeholders

Daniela Mena addresses Morris freeholders about immigration policy. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Daniela Mena addresses Morris freeholders about immigration policy. Photo by Bill Lescohier
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Video playlist by Bill Lescohier

By Kevin Coughlin

Should towns like Morristown declare sanctuary status for undocumented immigrants?

Morris County’s new sheriff says no. But immigration advocates told the county freeholders on Wednesday that the lawman’s stance will make everyone less safe.

Daniela Mena addresses Morris freeholders about immigration policy. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Daniela Mena addresses Morris freeholders about immigration policy. Photo by Bill Lescohier

Communities will be safer “if we have the support of local sheriffs, of local police departments, of local municipalities, and of our Morris County freeholders, to ensure that all vulnerable communities are protected and trust the police, and are willing to report crimes,” said Karol Ruiz, an attorney who works with Morristown-based Wind of the Spirit.

Earlier this month, Sheriff James Gannon said it’s “just not right” for Morris County towns to declare “themselves as a place where illegal immigrants can be guaranteed safe harbor from federal law enforcement officials.

“I started my career as a beat cop in Boonton, and can tell you that asking local law enforcement officers to effectively ignore federal law is problematic on a number of levels and creates confusion that could adversely impact public safety,” the sheriff stated on his website.

A proposal by Democratic state lawmakers to indemnify towns that lose federal aid for non-enforcement of federal immigration policy “defies all logic,” and would “create an undue and unfair tax burden on the vast majority of residents in the vast majority of New Jersey towns that are following the law,” added Gannon, a Republican.

‘QUINTESSENTIAL EXERCISE OF DEMOCRACY’

The borough of Madison has proclaimed itself a “Fair and Welcoming” community for immigrants, and Chatham is considering a similar resolution, said Rozella Clyde, a freeholder candidate.

Morristown’s mayor, council and clergy are studying the issue, after Police Chief Pete Demnitz publicly declared that his officers would not participate in 287(g), a federal program to deputize police as federal immigration agents.

Morris Sheriff James Gannon. Photo: GannonForSheriff.com
Morris Sheriff James Gannon. Photo: GannonForSheriff.com

Ruiz cited incidents of hate crimes and hate speech in Rockaway, Jefferson and Dover. A “No Hate, No Fear” rally is scheduled for Morristown on March 18, 2017, at 2 pm.

A Montville woman who is the daughter of Muslim immigrants said a climate of fear stems from President Trump, not from so-called fake news.

“We’re afraid of this administration for unprecedented reasons that are coming straight from the horse’s mouth, and are coming down in the form of laws that are actually being enacted in the first hundred days of office. We’re not stupid,” said Funda Istvan.

“Sanctuary-” and “Fair and Welcoming” designations are not universally defined, according to Madison resident David Stekatee.  In his hometown, he said, it means the borough won’t ask about citizen status before providing services.

But the sheriff has taken an extreme position by characterizing these designations as offering a “safe harbor” for undocumented immigrants, Stekatee told the freeholders.

In any case, he asserted, the Constitution bars the federal government from compelling state- and local authorities to enforce federal laws, and from punishing state and local governments that decline to perform federal law enforcement.

“As much as Sheriff Gannon might want to enforce federal immigration policy…our federal system of government suggests he shouldn’t, as this responsibility is exclusively reserved for the federal government,” Stekatee said.

Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel for LatinoJustice, said local policies set an example and send a strong message.  Sanctuary status “increases safety and tolerance for everyone” by fostering trust between immigrants and police, he told the freeholders.

“It’s the quintessential exercise of local democracy,” said Cartagena, a former Hoboken municipal judge.

PRAISE FOR MENTAL HEALTH RESOLUTION

The freeholders took no formal action on immigration.  But the all-Republican board did hear praise for adopting a resolution urging Gov. Chris Christie to delay a funding change that could harm the state’s “safety net” for the poor, according to mental health agencies.

Freeholder Director Doug Cabana, center, listens to immigration advocates, March 8, 2017. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Freeholder Director Doug Cabana, center, listens to immigration advocates, March 8, 2017. Photo by Bill Lescohier

In July, the state plans to move from cost reimbursement contracts to fee-for-service rate reimbursements for mental health and addiction services.  This means agencies only will get paid for clients they actually see–and not for their efforts to manage cases of clients who often skip appointments.

The new system could cost cash-strapped service providers $230,000 to $1.2 million annually, according to the resolution. Some agencies may be forced to close, advocates contend.

“… Our goal is to serve residents in the community through adequate service access, not in our higher cost jails, emergency rooms and psychiatric hospitals,” states the resolution.

The freeholders “strongly urge the state to put fiscal safeguards in place during the transition to fee for service, or delay the July 1, 2017 implementation date. We need full assurance that agency doors will stay open and current services remain available to New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents. We also call upon all other counties in New Jersey to join with us to insist on these safeguards for our communities.”

Morris County is the first county to enact such a resolution, said Robert Parker, CEO of NewBridge Services Inc., a nonprofit based in Pequannock.

“This is one of most significant resolutions I have ever seen,” Parker told the freeholders. “This is going to make a difference, and I just want to say thank you.”

–Bill Lescohier contributed to this report.

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