In Blue New Jersey, a Conservative Backlash on Immigration



Nov. 8, 2019

Voters in Sussex County, N.J., overwhelmingly approved a non-binding referendum to allow county government to offer help to federal immigration agents.


A referendum on Tuesday’s ballot in New Jersey’s northernmost county asked whether voters wanted local officials to cooperate with federal immigration agents.

It passed by a lopsided 2-to-1 margin.

Nearly 200 miles away, along the state’s southern swath, a directive by the state attorney general that in part bars county sheriff officers from doing the work of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents has led two counties to file federal lawsuits. A third county has threatened legal action.

The state attorney general’s rule not only precipitated the lawsuits, but also became a key election issue, generating support for Republican candidates who successfully ousted incumbent Democrats in a conservative district that cuts across Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic Counties.

Under President Trump, immigration has become one of the most polarizing issues in America. He has made immigration a central theme, repeatedly calling for a wall along the Mexican border and making incendiary comments about undocumented immigrants.

California has made opposition to Mr. Trump’s stringent immigration policies a core priority, while prosecutors in New York and Massachusetts have sued to block ICE arrests in courthouses.

But in reliably blue New Jersey, where the governor was elected on a promise to usher in a liberal agenda, there remain pockets of defiance to progressive immigration policy and what critics have labeled the “sanctuary state scam.”

“It was a rallying cry,” said Antwan McClellan, a Republican elected on Tuesday to the Assembly who works as the personnel director and assistant to the Cape May County sheriff. “People were concerned about their safety.” The sheriff filed one of the lawsuits against the attorney general.

He is being represented in the suit by another victorious Republican, Michael Testa Jr., a chairman of Mr. Trump’s re-election effort in New Jersey, who won a Senate seat that had been held by Representative Jeff Van Drew, one of only two House Democrats to oppose a resolution laying out rules for an impeachment inquiry.

Immigration will likely be one issue Republicans will push next year as they seek to reclaim House seats in Republican-leaning New Jersey districts where Democrats won last year.

The state’s Democratic attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, first issued the Immigrant Trust Directive a year ago, but it did not take hold until March.

It laid out rules that blocked local and state law enforcement officers from asking people about their immigration status, or from helping federal immigration agents as they make detention arrests. It allows law enforcement officers to turn over undocumented immigrants charged with certain crimes to ICE agents, but only if those agents pick up the migrants on the day of their release.

The aim of the directive was to eliminate the fear of coming forward for people who are not in the country legally and may be victims of crimes, or witnesses who could be helpful to law enforcement authorities.

It came in response to the “overzealous enforcement environment that was driving people into the shadows,” Mr. Grewal said.

In Sussex County, the referendum was placed on the ballot by the county freeholders, at the request of the sheriff, who was re-elected on Tuesday. The state’s Republican chairman, Doug Steinhardt, helped to draft the wording that asked whether voters were in favor of county government providing support to ICE agents.

“It’s about putting public safety above politics,” said the Sussex County sheriff, Michael F. Strada. “The attorney general and the governor are endangering our communities.”

But not all law enforcement officers agree.

Chief Ahmed Naga, the police chief in Long Hill, N.J., said most nonelected law enforcement officials support the attorney general’s directive and consider it important for effective crime fighting.

“We want victims to be able to come to the police,” Chief Naga said. “None of us signed up to enforce immigration laws.”

The referendum, which is nonbinding, won overwhelming support in Sussex County, a rural corner of rolling hills and farmland that is 87 percent white.

Residents who said they were in favor of the ballot item spoke of the importance of cooperating with federal agents, and the need for immigrants to find a legal path to citizenship.

John Alvarez, 57, a retired police officer who lives in the Sussex County town of Newton, said he arrived in the United States from Colombia as an 11-year-old. He said he voted in favor of the referendum because he does not want New Jersey to become a “safe house” for undocumented immigrants.

“We did it the right way,” Mr. Alvarez said of his family. “They want the easy way out.”

Adda Delgado, a 42-year-old cabdriver who lives in Newton but is originally from Ecuador, said she regularly gives rides to undocumented immigrants. “They are afraid,” she said.

Across a picturesque town square that appears lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting, campaign signs remained planted in a traffic median a day after the election. “Stop the sanctuary scam,” several read.

“I think it’s more wanting to give the federal government the authority,” said a woman who identified herself as K. Talen. She was pushing her two young sons in a stroller and said she voted for the referendum. “I don’t think people are afraid of our neighbors.”

But some residents saw a measure of hypocrisy among those who supported the referendum.

“It’s not like people aren’t hiring undocumented workers,” said Joanne Horr, a 23-year-old resident of Sussex County who said she opposed the ballot question. “They want to support ICE to come in to arrest people who are trying to build your house? Not for me.”

The ballot question, and the lawsuits filed by Ocean and Cape May Counties that are wending their way through the federal courts, have the power to sway public opinion, Mr. Grewal said. “They’re feeding into this false narrative that immigrant populations commit crime at higher rates,” he said.

John J. Farmer Jr., the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said the areas of resistance to the attorney general’s directive “speaks to the fact that New Jersey is in some sense a divided state.”

“You have pockets of very Republican areas,” he said, “that are sympathetic to the president’s agenda.”

In Sussex County, 62 percent of voters supported Mr. Trump for president over Hillary Clinton in a state that as a whole backed Mrs. Clinton by 14 percentage points.

Still, it remains unclear how issues like immigration will impact Democratic House members running for re-election next year in districts where, for now, it remains a powerful talking point, he said.

“I don’t think that there is going to be any clear-cut drift back to Trump, because I see other issues that are countervailing,” Mr. Farmer said.

Kathy O’Leary, the New Jersey coordinator for Pax Christi, a Roman Catholic peace movement, said she believes there are similarities between the ballot referendum, and the willingness of some Democrat-led counties, like Essex, to accept federal funds to house detained immigrants.

In Essex, some officials argue that the funds help provide vital services to their constituents, including immigrants.

“They all function as a way for the party in power to stay in power,” she said.

Mr. Grewal called the legal and ballot efforts “political theater.” “We are in no way a sanctuary state,” he said.

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