Sanctuary cities are “bad business,” and possibly illegal, Morris County Sheriff James Gannon told a packed meeting Tuesday that at times erupted into shouting between Tea Party members and pro-immigrant activists.
“When people are allowed to just…be hidden from view, illegally committing crimes, and people are not cooperating with the federal government, whether they’re from a local municipality or whatever, I think that’s bad business.
“I also tend to think it’s against the law… to harbor people who the federal government is looking for in serious criminal offenses,” Gannon told the monthly gathering of the Morris County Tea Party at the county library in Whippany.
Many of the 100 or so people crammed into the room–more filled a hallway– interrupted the Republican sheriff and James Agresti, president of a conservative/libertarian nonprofit called Just Facts, to challenge their statements.
“Go to San Francisco!” and “Come here legally!” others volleyed back.
As the two-hour session wound down, attorney Karol Ruiz of the Morristown-based Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center led chants of “No Human Being is Illegal!”
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin
On one side of the divide were those expressing beliefs that immigrants should take the legal route to the United States, and local police should cooperate fully with ICE, Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division.
Pro-immigrant activists said President Trump’s policies have sown fear and distrust among immigrants, making communities less safe.
One educator choked up while relating how an undocumented woman and her sexually abused 5-year-old daughter vanished, because the woman feared deportation if she reported the abuse to authorities.
“Fair and Welcoming Community” resolutions adopted in Madison, Maplewood and elsewhere aim to allay immigrants’ fears about local police helping federal officers round them up, activists said.
Alison Miller, pastor of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, urged Gannon to read an information packet about Fair and Welcoming Communities; he agreed to do so.
Earlier this month, Gannon stated on his website that 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.”
But on Tuesday, in response to a question from Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, he conceded he knew of no towns in the county or statewide that have refused to cooperate with any federal request to detain immigrants suspected of crimes.
Gannon, a former Boonton cop and investigator for the Morris County prosecutor, is in his first 100 days as sheriff.
He agreed it’s important to maintain immigrants’ trust–to protect them from being victimized–and added he has no plans, for now, at least, to certify his officers as immigration agents under a program known as 287(g).
“We’re keeping all our options open, to see how we can deliver a better service to the folks up here, because it is about crime reduction, too,” he said, responding to Diane Du Brule, acting director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
Under guidelines issued by the state attorney general a decade ago, law enforcement officers only can inquire about citizenship status when someone is suspected of committing a felony, Gannon said. Police cannot ask such questions of witnesses or families of suspects, he said.
But he reminded the audience of the rape and murder of a 10-year-old Morristown boy by an undocumented man in 2001, and he vowed to enforce laws to protect everyone.
“It’s not ‘enforce what you want,'” said Gannon, who heard praise from activists for calmly fielding their questions.
TESTY TO COMICAL
Officials in the audience included Morris Freeholder Director Doug Cabana, Morris Township Committeewoman Lois Johnson and Morristown council candidate Esperanza Poras-Field.
Exchanges ranged from testy to bizarre to comical.
One woman riled meeting organizers by attempting to ask Gannon why the Ku Klux Klan came to Morristown years ago to support the federal 287(g) program.
Another confessed to Agresti–the Just Facts founder whose statistics purported to link illegal immigrants to high crime rates–that her family came to America illegally, too… in 1620.
As people filed from the room, two men with opposing viewpoints aimed video cameras at each other, like gunslingers at the OK Corral.
County Tea Party President Carl Rupp, who tried to play peacemaker all night, shrugged when the event finally was over.
“No one got hurt,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”