Mayor Roque’s opponents denounce hasty voting

Resolutions on undocumented immigrants tabled in WNY

The two policies have been a topic of discussion across Hudson County.
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The two policies have been a topic of discussion across Hudson County.

Mayor Felix Roque introduced some add-on resolutions at the Board of Commissioners meeting on March 27 calling for new policy in response to years of widespread Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detentions and deportations of undocumented residents across Hudson County.

But Commissioners Gabriel Rodriguez, Cosmo Cirillo, and Margarita Guzman — who are opposing Roque in the municipal election on May 14 — said that they didn’t have a chance to discuss or look at the resolutions prior to Roque’s motion to vote on them.

They used their 3-2 majority to table both resolutions for further review.

Multiple ICE arrests and deportations took place in West New York throughout 2018. Several policies have been pushed by a number of advocate organizations for immigrants rights, with the goal of providing social opportunity and safety to undocumented migrants. Municipalities across Hudson County have debated proposals on these policies since mid-2017.

One resolution, R35, calls for a municipal identification card program. Similar programs have been in development in Jersey City and Union City since May of 2017.

The other resolution calls for West New York to support passage of New Jersey Assembly Bill A-4743, which would create two categories of driver’s licenses, allowing residents unable to prove lawful residency in the U.S. to receive a state permit to drive.

“Any resident will be able to obtain proper ID without the need of disclosing their immigration status,” Roque said. “This will assist residents in obtaining employment. Sometimes an immigrant is stopped, and there’s no identification, and a police officer won’t know who they are. This will make sure that we can identify them, and they can also open bank accounts, and be identified.”

Opponents cry foul 

Rodriguez, the town’s Public Safety Commissioner, said he was never involved in a discussion about the policy with the police department, and needed time to review the specifics before signing off on it.

Roque accused him of disapproving of the program. Rodriguez reiterated that he supported the idea of municipal IDs but would need to review the resolution in depth, “in fairness and respect to how the plan should be.”

‘Would’ve been helpful to read this’

When Roque introduced the second add-on resolution supporting Assembly bill A-4743, Commissioner Cosmo Cirillo made a motion to table that vote, saying the bill would be too nuanced for an immediate decision.

“I had the opportunity to work down in Trenton for the New Jersey General Assembly,” Cirillo said. “It’s very important to read these bills at length, because there are many passages and clauses in each of the bills which may be beneficial, but there are many passages that might not involve what you’re discussing.”

Rodriguez told the mayor, “It would have been extremely helpful to have read that bill before this meeting, to have a conversation. I would’ve been happy to read it ahead of time, or have a conversation with you, but that’s not something you seem to want to do in terms of governing this community.”

“I just want you to promise me something,” Roque responded. “Don’t give me ‘mañana’ next month. Don’t say ‘I haven’t had enough time to review it,’ because you’re actually jeopardizing a lot of people out there who need to work, and who need municipal IDs.”

A lengthy precedent

Immigration policy was first discussed in West New York’s town hall in March of 2017, when the Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming West New York as a “fair and welcoming community.”

This resolution was similar to sanctuary city resolutions passed in Jersey City and Union City. In the resolution, West New York did not instituted new policies, address a police directive, or create services like a municipal ID program.

However, other commissioners reported that those conversations never took place with Roque nor his aides attended meetings with residents nad community advocates on immigration issues.

Roque writes a letter

Shortly after the fair-and-welcoming-community resolution was passed in May 2017, a high-profile event triggered talk of ICE deportation policies.

Roque, a doctor, was indicted for allegedly accepting $250,000 in kickbacks through his pain management clinic. After being aquitted of all charges in the 2016 case, he wrote a letter to President Trump, dated Sept. 4, 2017, asking the president to deport Rohan Zuberi, a key witness who testified against him.

Zuberi, a Pakistani immigrant, is serving a prison sentence for bribery and money laundering stemming from his own medical practice. Roque was accused of being involved in this scheme, before his acquittal on the kickback charges.

In his letter Roque wrote that he disapproved of the decision to let Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) expire, but said that immigrants convicted of felonies should be deported.

“I have seen instances in my own State of New Jersey where immigrants who have been convicted of serious crimes on multiple occasions are given a free pass to remain in our great country simply because they cut a deal with the NJ Attorney General’s office to testify for the government in order to save their skin and avoid deportation,” the letter read.

“I am referring to the case of Rohan Zuberi, a Pakistani immigrant who has been twice convicted of serious felonies such as Medicaid fraud, money laundering, and a slew of other fraudulent activities. Mr. President, I ask you to be consistent in your policies and insist that this criminal be deported.”

That letter did not reportedly get any response from President Trump.

County conflicts

In the years following the fair-and-welcoming community resolution, ICE detentions swept across Hudson County. The county’s contract with ICE, the 287 (g) agreement, to house and facilitate enforcement against undocumented migrant detainees in return for federal funding became an incendiary issue.

Protests rallied outside the Hudson County Correctional facility in 2017 when medical reports confirmed that ICE detainee Rolando Meza Espinoza died while incarcerated there, from hemorrhagic shock and multi-organ failure connected to prior conditions. Most of the account of Espinoza’s treatment was redacted from a medical report on public record.

The county ended its controversial 287(g) agreement in early 2018. Yet, an unnanounced rescheduling of the vote to renew the ICE contract indefinitely, which moved the vote up from its planned August hearing to July 12, 2018 without notifying residents preemptively, sparked months of protests at Board of Freeholder meetings. In September 2018, County Executive Tom DeGise announced his intent to pull out of the ICE contract by 2020.

DeGise said that Hudson County, in the meantime, is doing what it can to reduce harm to detainees, saying that detainees preferred to stay in local facilities rather than be moved elsewhere because they have better access to lawyers and family.

Meanwhile, back at city hall

Rodriguez said Roque’s add-on resolutions, which fast-track decisions on policies that were under heavy debate for years, were “cavalier.”

“It was the first time we heard those resolutions would be brought on the floor,” he said.

While Rodriguez said he was blindsided by the motion to vote on these resolutions, town officials had been meeting with immigrant advocates for some time.

“Countless immigration groups approached myself and other commissioners,” Rodriguez said. “This was not an issue that was first brought to West New York leadership in the last meeting. The only commissioner on the board that did not speak to them was the mayor.”

Prior to the resolutions he introduced at the most recent meeting, Roque is not known on record to have participated in the advocacy efforts to end 287(g), end the ICE contract, establish municipal IDs, or pass driver’s license legislation in Trenton.

Rodriguez said that if the resolutions had been adopted they could be harmful. He is concerned that lengthy formatting needed to precede those resolutions to eliminate potential for ICE, other agencies, or individuals to access the data of municipal ID holders, through search warrants or subpoenas.

For updates on this and more stories check hudsonreporter.com, or follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mike Montemarano can be reached at mikem@hudsonreporter.com.