Donald Trump sharply intensified the nation’s immigration debate last week when he signed an executive order removing federal funding from cities that refer to themselves as “sanctuary cities.” Although there is technically no legal definition of a “sanctuary city” certain towns have gone on the record in the last few decades as saying they won’t ask their police to cooperate with federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in detaining undocumented persons, unless they are involved in serious crime.
Trump said when he ran for office that he would focus on undocumented immigrants. However, some who have fled Latin American countries to come to America have had children here, and local officials are concerned about tearing families apart.
Cities that have declared themselves “sanctuary cities” include San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City. None of Hudson County’s towns have given themselves the title, but several local mayors have said they will defend the immigrants in their towns.
Various sources place the number of sanctuary cities from 35 to as many as 300.
A 2014 report from the Department of Homeland Security found that between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2014, ICE documented 8,811 detainer requests in 276 counties spread through 43 states that local authorities declined to enforce.
North Hudson strikes back
Reaction in Hudson County to Trump’s action has been swift. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said the city plans to introduce and vote on a sanctuary city ordinance in the near future.
Union City, Weehawken, and North Bergen – areas with considerable Latino immigrant populations – made it clear that they will protect undocumented immigrants and won’t capitulate to Trump.
West New York Mayor Felix Roque and Guttenberg Mayor Gerald Drasheff did not respond to multiple voicemail and email requests for comment.
At his most recent “mobile city hall” meeting on Jan. 31, when asked about the issue, Mayor Brian Stack gestured toward the attendees. “You see how many people I saw tonight here,” he said. “Many are undocumented. In Union City, we don’t ask them if they’re documented or undocumented. We try to help everybody. But we’re going to go the extra mile now, considering what President Trump is doing, to not only help the immigrants, undocumented, who are here, but to welcome any that want to come to Union City.”
“These are good people, whether they’re documented or undocumented.” – Mayor Brian Stack
Still, “We’re not gonna allow anyone, whether it be the president of the United States, or anyone, to tell us who can live in our city and who we can help,” he said. “These are good people, whether they’re documented or undocumented; these are people looking for a better way of life. And our city, and this country, is made from immigrants.”
Stack recently organized clergymen from North Hudson and a sanctuary cities committee in New York City to explain their rights to other clergy and how to provide shelter for undocumented immigrants. He plans to hold more seminars in Union City throughout February on helping undocumented people.
Union City will also be creating its own municipal identification program, similar to the one in New York, that will provide city services to anyone, regardless of immigration status. Stack said he will provide more information on that in the coming weeks.
In Weehawken, Mayor Richard Turner echoed a similar sentiment. “We have not declared ourselves a sanctuary city, but we’re more along the lines with Jersey City, which is, we’re a totally open city,” Turner said. “And we do not expect to spend any of our resources on enforcing anything concerning immigration, unless it involves criminal activity.”
He added, “We’re a totally open and inclusive city. We’re not speculating what’s going to come down from the federal government. We don’t expect to, nor would we want to, do any non-criminal immigration enforcement. Our resources are stretched too thin now from normal crime and traffic issues.”
On Trump’s equally controversial immigrant ban on seven Muslim majority countries, Turner held pointed criticism. Weehawken, he said, has a considerable Muslim population, with many practicing employees.
“It’s a totally misguided attempt to make people feel safe,” he argued. “I don’t think it makes us safe. It has more to do with politics.”
“Mayor [Nicholas] Sacco and the township have been extremely supportive of the immigrant community in many important ways,” said Phil Swibinski, a North Bergen spokesperson.
“From ordering non-profit advocacy organizations to host citizen workshops, to helping people become citizens, to creating programs to help arriving students adjusting to new life in America and helping the families adjust, the mayor was a very outspoken supporter of President Obama’s immigration policy, the DACA program and the executive orders that he put in.”
Swibinski said, “if a child is brought here and is undocumented, he’s still part of our community. They’re in our community. They shouldn’t be taken away.”
Along with Weehawken’s officers, North Bergen’s police department also does not check for legal status, unless an individual has committed a major, indictable offense, according to Swibinski.
Should the president withhold federal dollars, the mayors said their towns would survive.
The government sends millions of dollars in aid annually to Union City, Stack said. Some of that comes in grants for departments such as police. However, he said, the funds make up a small amount of their annual budget.
“Whatever we lose, we’ll do our best to make up on our own,” Stack said. “It’s not going to deter me or deter the commissioners in Union City from helping the undocumented.”
“As far as direct federal funding, we get very little directly,” Turner said. “Most of all our federal funding comes from the state of New Jersey, which the state allocates and distributes. We don’t get too much [federal money]. Categorically, we get project money, depending on different partnerships we apply for. For example, road improvements, the funds come from the federal government to Trenton, Trenton disperses it to us. [Trump] would have to really overhaul the whole federal system.”
Though cities in Hudson County are adopting resolutions to become sanctuaries, they technically cannot make that transition. This, according to county spokesperson Jim Kennelly, is due to an agreement the county jail has with ICE regarding detainees. The jail currently houses between 700 and 800 ICE detainees.
“If an [arrested] individual comes up with an immigration status, and they are charged with, or have convictions on their criminal record for crimes that ICE views as a high risk to the community – usually violent felonies, sexual violence, things like that – there is an agreement in place between the Hudson County Correctional Center and ICE, and that will be reported to ICE, so that the individuals may be detained or become subject to deportation,” Kennelly said.
He continued, “As a result of that, no community in Hudson County, no municipality can officially declare itself a sanctuary city under the very strict guidelines that are required of those who advocate on the behalf of the undocumented migrants in the United States. Our understanding of the law is that the final official designation of a municipality as a sanctuary city is a fairly narrow thing.”
However, local cities in the county are free to “act in any capacity they have to support and protect the rights of undocumented migrants in the United States,” Kennelly said.