By Dr. Joseph Chuman
More than a hundred community organizers, social justice lawyers and activists of various stripes convened on the campus of the College of New Jersey outside of Trenton on Dec. 18 for a conference held by the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, of which our Ethical Culture Society is a member.
There was electricity in the air generated by the edict proclaimed three weeks ago by our state Attorney General (and former Bergen County prosecutor) Gurbir Grewal that forbids New Jersey police—all 36,000 of them—at the state, county and municipal levels of cooperating with the Department of Immigration and
Customs Enforcement (ICE). This means no stopping by the police, questioning, arresting, searching or detaining any person because of his or her suspected or actual immigration status. It means no police assistance in civil immigration enforcement, no ICE access to local police resources, databases, offices, etc. It means that ICE cannot interview people held on criminal charges without their written permission, and a person who has a scheduled release date and time from jail cannot be held longer (so-called “detainers”) to accommodate an arrest by ICE. In criminal prosecutions, a witness’ credibility cannot be attacked based on immigration status, and other measures of protections.
This is a major achievement toward justice and protection of a very imperiled minority and will hopefully stand as an inspiration for other states to emulate. Mr. Grewal’s approach to formulating the directive was creative and powerful. He got immigration rights advocates working together with the police. When the press conference announcing the directive took place at Liberty State Park, the Attorney General was flanked by both immigration advocates and the police chiefs of New Jersey’s five major cities. Police support is rational and compelling. Law enforcement recognizes that when immigrants fear that any contact with the police may lead to deportation they fail to report crimes, refuse to serve as witnesses, do not come forward when they themselves are victims, refuse to go to court for any legitimate reason, and generally seek to stay out of sight. The result, as the police correctly realize, is that their cooperation with ICE jeopardizes public safety. We are all safer when the police stick to police work and are not deputized to hunt down our neighbors.
Attorney General Grewal, himself a child of immigrants, gave the keynote address at the conference, (think of the symbolism of the state’s chief law enforcement agent speaking in unity with a progressive organization supporting the oppressed and marginalized). He strongly criticized the scapegoating of immigrants coming out of Washington and contrasting his approach—our approach—in New Jersey. He received a rapturous standing ovation. There is much to do, but this is a very important step for which we can be both thankful and proud.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County and a founder of the Northern New Jersey Sanctuary Coalition.