Cape May County Sheriff’s office approved for federal immigration training

 The Sheriff's office said only people already detained in the county jail will be subject to immigration review. (Bill Barlow/for NewsWorks)

The Sheriff's office said only people already detained in the county jail will be subject to immigration review. (Bill Barlow/for NewsWorks)

The Cape May County Sheriff’s Department has been accepted into a federal training program with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sheriff Gary Schaffer announced this week. Three current employees will begin training at the next available opening.

Known as 287(g), the program gives local law enforcement officers immigration enforcement powers, and training in ICE procedures. The county applied for the program in October. According to Schaffer, ICE approached his office about applying.

The application itself drew almost no notice, and although 287(g) agreements have been in place in some areas of New Jersey for a decade, until early this year, the program was all but unknown in the county. More recently, however, local organizations have organized against the county’s participation, expressing fears that it would harm undocumented workers.

Opponents have turned out in force at the past two meetings of the county governing body, the Board of Freeholders, demanding 287(g) be stopped. Many who spoke at the most recent meeting suggested immigrant families are terrified, many connecting it to President Trump and an anti-immigrant mood in the nation.

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While he did not attend the county meetings, Schaffer has sought to calm worries, repeatedly stating that the officers trained under the program will only operate in the county jail.

“We’re not going out looking for anybody,” Schaffer reiterated in an interview Tuesday, March 21.

“I am stressing that our officers will not be going out looking for undocumented persons. Families should relax,” Schaffer said in a prepared statement.”That is 100 percent accurate,” said Khaalid Walls, a spokesman of ICE who confirmed Schaffer’s assertions on Tuesday.

In public comments, Schaffer has said bail reform, a change in New Jersey law that went into effect this year after a November referendum vote, means people will not end up in the county jail for minor offenses or traffic citations.”The only way our officers will become involved is if you enter our correctional facility as an inmate. Once again with the present bail reform in place, the chances of being placed in the correctional center have been greatly reduced unless you have committed serious and violent crimes,” said Schaffer.

Still, some advocates for immigrants remain unconvinced. At the recent public meeting, several speakers said the county’s participation in the program creates an atmosphere of fear and distrust, and makes people in some communities less likely to speak to law enforcement, even to report crimes. That makes everyone less safe, they argued.

Of the three officers set to participate in the training, one handles investigations, one officer speaks fluent Spanish and another speaks fluent Russian, according to Schaffer. He declined to identify the officers by name.

The officers will undergo a four-week training course at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Charleston, SC to include coursework in immigration law, the use of ICE databases, multi-cultural communication and the avoidance of racial profiling.

According to Schaffer, the county received word of the approval on March 17, but they have not yet received official confirmation.

In a press release issued this week, he stated: “We have been involved with ICE detainers for the last eight plus years and nothing has changed with us participating with this agreement. The agreement allows these three officers access to ICE computer systems that gives us better law enforcement intelligence capabilities and speeds up the processing of the inmate.”

Schaffer said he modeled the local 287(g) program after Monmouth County, where he said it has been in place at the county jail for 10 years without a problem.

Information on the ICE website about the program says it is focused on “criminal aliens,” particularly those who pose the greatest risk to public safety. Racial profiling in immigration enforcement will not be tolerated, it states, and if proven can mean an end to the local agreement.

It also states that revisions in 2013 update civil rights standards, a complaint procedure, and the release of information to the media, among other listed updates.

“The biggest benefit to public safety is that the partners in 287(g) will be empowered to identify criminal aliens in custody who may be subject to immigration enforcement,” stated ICE’s Walls.

Schaffer said there are three people in county jail as of Tuesday with ICE detainers, including two awaiting hearings in Superior Court, one from the Dominican Republic, another from Panama.

Each summer, the county population, and activity, skyrockets. The same is reflected in immigration enforcement, according to Schaffer.

“Due to the demographics of Cape May County and the job market; ICE is very active in our facility during the summer months.  Since 2008, ICE has removed 143 inmates from our facility that we identified and were subsequently detained by ICE.  In addition, during that time period 50 additional inmates were removed by ICE from other facilities on our identification; due to the fact they had pending charges in other jurisdictions after our charges were reconciled,” Schaffer said in a prepared statement.

He said he will keep a close eye on the program.

“I have directed Warden (Donald J.) Lombardo to set up a record and audit of any inmate that becomes involved with ICE with this program to make sure everything is above board and transparent. The Cape May County Sheriff’s Office will continue to work closely with every municipal, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies. We will use every possible legal means available to protect all the residents and visitors to Cape May County,” said Schaffer.


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