New immigrant policy for cops combats ‘culture of fear,’ state A.G. tells Morristown

State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal describes his Immigrant Trust Directive in Morristown, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, speaking in Morristown, February 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Critics who say his new Immigrant Trust Directive offers sanctuary to criminals are spewing “hogwash,” state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said Tuesday in Morristown.

“Let me be clear about this: If you commit a crime in this state, you’re going to jail regardless of your immigration status. There is no free pass to commit crime as a result of this directive,” Grewal said.

State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal addresses public at the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, Fev. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal addresses public at the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, Fev. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Rather, he asserted his new policy–which spells out when state and local authorities may, and may not, cooperate with federal immigration officers–will make New Jersey safer by easing immigrants’ concerns about cooperating with local police.

“It was important for me to develop relationships of trust in a comfortable setting like this one. Because it’s much easier to have a conversation here than near yellow police tape, in the wake of a crisis,” said Grewal, who was named attorney general by Gov. Phil Murphy in December 2017.

Video: NJ Attorney General explains Immigrant Trust Directive:

The state’s top law enforcement official spoke at the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, at a forum hosted by Morris County Prosecutor Fredric Knapp and Sussex County Prosecutor Francis Koch.

Audience members included representatives of Morristown’s Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center; Morris Sheriff James Gannon; Mayor Tim Dougherty, Public Safety Director Michael Corcoran Jr. and Acting Police Chief Darnell Richardson of Morristown; and Morris Township Deputy Mayor Cathy Wilson.

Grewal introduced the policy in November. It takes effect on March 15, 2019, superseding a 2007 directive.

From left, Brian Lozano of Wind of the Spirit, Morris Prosecutor Fredric Knapp, and Sussex Prosecutor Francis Koch, president of the County Prosecutors' Association of NJ, listen to state Attorney General in Morritown, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
From left, Brian Lozano of Wind of the Spirit; Morris Prosecutor Fredric Knapp; and Sussex Prosecutor Francis Koch, president of the County Prosecutors’ Association of NJ; listen to state Attorney General in Morristown, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Local authorities will obey court orders pertaining to immigration cases, and will cooperate with federal immigration agents in criminal investigations, Grewal said.

But federal deportation actions are civil matters that give federal agents power to detain people without court orders. Local cooperation will be minimal, Grewal said.

“Our priorities are and have always been to ensure public safety, and to enforce the state’s criminal laws. And to cooperate with our federal law enforcement partners on criminal matters. We do not enforce federal civil immigration deportation orders. And we don’t go out on civil immigration enforcement raids,” he said.

Learn more about the directive

If federal authorities want a county jail to detain an immigrant beyond a scheduled release date, their request must be tied to an ongoing investigation of an indictable crime.

The directive prohibits New Jersey’s 36,000 law enforcement officers from stopping or arresting anyone based solely on the person’s suspected or actual immigration status. Nor may they inquire about that status, unless it’s necessary for an ongoing probe of a serious offense.

And the directive bars them from sharing databases and other resources with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

According to Grewal, four law enforcement agencies in the state have deputized police to double as immigration officers, under a federal program known as 287(G).  He vowed to take a hard look when these departments seek to renew the practice.

“I haven’t heard of an argument to date that would make me approve a 287(G) renewal,” Grewal said.

‘CULTURE OF FEAR’

When he was Bergen County’s prosecutor, Grewal recounted, changes in federal immigration policy sowed a “culture of fear…that drove our most vulnerable residents further into the shadows.”

This created a “chilling effect” on his ability to investigate and prosecute crimes because undocumented immigrants were afraid to testify, he said.

Deputy Attorney General Joe Walsh speaks in Morristown, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Deputy Attorney General Joe Walsh speaks in Morristown, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“There were residents who feared going to the grocery store, for example, because they feared that a traffic stop led them to deportation proceedings. They feared reporting…that they had been the victims of fraud, because they thought they would end up in a deportation center. They feared going to court to testify against their abuser, because they feared they would be swept up by ICE while they were there,” Grewal said.

The state does not want immigrants thinking local cops and ICE officers are “joined at the hip,” said Deputy Attorney General Joe Walsh.

Cooperation with authorities would seem increasingly vital at a time when reports of bias crimes are rising sharply.

FBI statistics showed a 17 percent spike in hate crimes nationwide in 2017. New Jersey’s numbers were even more alarming: 495 hate crimes represented a 76 percent increase, said New Jersey Civil Rights Director Rachel Apter. The Anti-Defamation League counted 280 anti-Semitic incidents statewide, she added.

“All of this serves to remind us that messengers of hate are no longer confined to the dark recesses of the internet,” said Apter.

She ascribed the escalating numbers partly to provocations by officials.

State Civil Rights Director Rachel Apter shares alarming statistics in Morristown, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
State Civil Rights Director Rachel Apter shares alarming statistics in Morristown, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Words of people in power matter. And when people in power use words to dehumanize people or pit communities against each other, that can have consequences. And comments can lead to conduct,” Apter told the audience.

Brian Lozano of the nonprofit Wind of the Spirit said he’s confident the Immigrant Trust Directive will work in places like Morristown. Elsewhere, he’s more skeptical.

Some immigrants will feel a little safer, but “there still is a large disconnect and distrust of law enforcement and officials in the undocumented community,” Lozano said.

The policy was crafted with input from civil rights groups, police and jail wardens, among others, Grewal said.

“The reason I know it’s a good directive is because no one was 100 percent happy with it,” the attorney general said. “It is very difficult to please everybody. And if you’re pleasing everybody you’re not doing your job.”

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