Before Trump Rally in N.J., Justice Dept. Joins Local Immigration Case



Jan. 26, 2020

President Trump with Representative Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, who just became a Republican.Credit...


On the eve of a visit by President Trump to New Jersey for a campaign rally, his administration has unexpectedly intervened on behalf of local officials in the state in a heated immigration dispute.

The Justice Department on Friday joined a lawsuit that seeks to overturn a state directive that has been in effect for nearly a year that limits how much local law enforcement can cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The move comes amid the Trump administration’s escalating efforts against so-called sanctuary policies around the country, but experts said the timing could suggest it has as much to do with politics as with immigration.

The two counties that filed the suit are in the district of Representative Jeff Van Drew, a freshman centrist who was elected as a Democrat but recently became a Republican after voting against impeaching Mr. Trump.

In changing parties — and pledging “undying support” for Mr. Trump — Mr. Van Drew roiled the political landscape in the southern part of the state and raised the stakes for his re-election campaign this year.

Amy Kennedy, the wife of former Representative Patrick Kennedy, part of the political dynasty, announced this month that she would join the crowded race against Mr. Van Drew, releasing a video that included images of him meeting with the president in the Oval Office after his switch. Mr. Trump announced that same day he would be holding a rally in New Jersey on Tuesday.

The Justice Department’s decision to side with the two counties may signal that Mr. Van Drew — who will speak at Mr. Trump’s rally in Wildwood, N.J. — intends to make immigration a central plank in his re-election campaign, just as Mr. Trump has done.

Mr. Van Drew did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

John J. Farmer Jr., a former New Jersey attorney general and director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said politics did seem to play a part in the timing of the move. “It should be seen as an attempt by the president to inspire his base in South Jersey, where he does have support, and as an attempt to bolster Van Drew’s newfound status as a Republican,” he said.

Mr. Farmer said the federal officials’ involvement in the suit should also be viewed in light of an “unusually high” volume of litigation between Gov. Philip D. Murphy’s administration and Mr. Trump’s Justice Department. “Completely different world views colliding, that is what is happening here,” Mr. Farmer said.

Mr. Trump’s forthcoming appearance at the Wildwood Convention Center will be his first campaign rally in the state as president, though he frequently has visited his golf courses there.

New Jersey has tended recently to lean Democratic, voting overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The Democratic Party also controls both the governor’s office and the Legislature. But the rally will take place in a more conservative area in the southern part of the state that is more friendly to Republicans.

The event is expected to draw thousands of Trump supporters, including from out of state. Mr. Van Drew told Fox News that 100,000 tickets had been requested for the rally at the venue, which holds 7,400 people.

At issue in the lawsuit is the New Jersey attorney general’s Immigrant Trust Directive, which the Justice Department is asking to be declared unconstitutional. (The federal officials are not a party in the lawsuit, but will be supporting the counties’ efforts.)

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign declined to comment.

The state attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, said in a statement on Saturday that he was “deeply disappointed” that federal officials “have suddenly chosen to challenge” the directive in court.

Mr. Grewal said the directive had played an important role in “ensuring that victims and witnesses come forward and report crimes to law enforcement without fear of deportation.”

He added: “The federal government’s efforts to coerce states into implementing its immigration agenda have failed repeatedly in the past, and we’ll respond to their latest efforts in court at the appropriate time.”

Issued in November 2018, the state attorney general’s directive laid out rules limiting the extent to which local and state law enforcement can assist federal civil immigration enforcement efforts. It restricts law enforcement from sharing information with federal authorities and prohibits asking people about their immigration status.

It allows law enforcement officers to turn over undocumented immigrants charged with certain crimes to United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, but only if enforcement agents pick up the migrants on the day of their release.

Cape May County and Ocean County filed separate lawsuits last fall opposing the directive, but those lawsuits were consolidated before the Justice Department got involved in the suit.

State Senator Michael Testa Jr., a Republican who is one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Cape May County, said he had not been consulted about the Justice Department’s decision.

But he criticized the limits the directive places on local law enforcement officers’ ability to cooperate with ICE.

“I really don’t understand why our attorney general would not want to have coordination between law enforcement agencies at the county level, with ICE, when an individual who is here in this country illegally has in fact committed a crime,” said Mr. Testa, who is an honorary chairman of Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign in New Jersey.

The Justice Department has repeatedly spoken out against what it calls sanctuary policies around the country and has attempted to cut off federal funding to jurisdictions that have laws limiting cooperation with ICE.

It is not the first time it has gotten involved in legal challenges to such policies under Mr. Trump. In 2018, the Justice Department unsuccessfully filed its own suit challenging California’s sanctuary laws. A federal judge largely ruled against the administration’s case in July of that year, saying that the state never violated the Constitution by passing its own laws. The department lost again on appeal last spring.

In New Jersey, most local law enforcement officers have supported the attorney general’s directive, which went into effect last March, saying that it has helped reassure immigrants that they can interact with law enforcement without risking deportation.

In Bridgeton, a rural community in southern New Jersey that is home to many Latino immigrants, the police have been conducting a monthslong search for Dulce Maria Alavez, a 5-year-old who disappeared from a park in September. Michael A. Gaimari Sr., the police chief in Bridgeton, said he was “disappointed” to learn that the Justice Department had joined the challenge to the statewide directive.

“We have been trying to break down the barriers to get the information we need to investigate cases like this one — that becomes difficult when there’s fear,” he said.

Activists also lamented that the federal government was throwing its weight behind the legal challenge to the directive.

“Before the directive, immigrants in New Jersey feared even the slightest contact with law enforcement could lead to family separations,” said Sara Cullinane, the director of Make The Road Action in New Jersey, an advocacy group. “Since the directive went into effect, we have seen that trust has been significantly repaired.”

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