Ocean County to sue New Jersey over policy that limits cooperation with ICE

Ocean County officials are angered by a new attorney general directive limits how their jail staff can help identify undocumented immigrants.

(Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP)

(Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP)

Officials in a conservative New Jersey county say they are fed up with the state’s approach to immigration under Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.

They said Ocean County will file a federal lawsuit to challenge a new policy known as the Immigrant Trust Directive. That policy sets strict limits on when state, county and local law enforcement can assist U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“New Jersey is either part of the United States or it’s not,” Ocean County Freeholder Jack Kelly said at a meeting this week, according to the Asbury Park Press

“We do not believe that its governor or its state attorney general — whether they be Democrat or Republican — has the lawful authority to instruct anyone to not cooperate with a federal law enforcement agency,” he said. “We are not an island unto ourselves.”

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State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued the directive last year as the Trump administration stepped up its arrests and deportation of undocumented immigrants, often relying on local law enforcement for help. 

Local police, sheriff’s officers and jail staff should not be in the business of immigration enforcement, Grewal says. And drawing a clear line between New Jersey and federal authorities will make the state safer, he argues, because people can report crimes without fear of deportation.

The attorney general in New Jersey has broad authority to establish statewide policies that apply to all law enforcement agencies.

The promise of a legal challenge by Ocean County came as President Trump said nationwide raids on immigrant communities would begin Sunday.

At a public meeting Wednesday night, the all-Republican freeholder board authorized its attorney to prepare the lawsuit. It has yet to be filed.

Officials there are specifically angered that the Immigrant Trust Directive cut down on cooperation between its Department of Corrections, which oversees the county jail, and ICE.

Prior to the directive, an ICE officer had a workstation inside the jail, where he could access non-public information about inmates, such as their Social Security number and country of origin, said Assistant County Administrator Michael Fiure.

Jail staff could also convey that information to ICE officers over the phone, helping them determine which inmates they may want to investigate, he said.

After the directive, however, the workstation is no longer permitted, ICE can access only public information and staff cannot tell ICE much more than inmates’ names.

The directive also requires that inmates sign a consent form before ICE officers can interview them, and it says county jails can’t hold inmates sought by ICE past their release date unless they are charged with a violent offense or facing final deportation orders.

Republican state lawmakers who represent parts of Ocean County praised the pending lawsuit.

“We are a nation of laws, and the governor cannot pick and choose which laws to follow or not follow based on emotions rather than facts,” Assemblyman Greg McGuckin said in a statement. “If you are an illegal immigrant and you commit an additional crime on New Jersey soil, our jails shouldn’t have their hands tied and be forced to look the other way.”

Ocean is not the only county chafing under the new directive. Cape May and Monmouth counties are facing challenges from the attorney general over agreements with ICE that allow jail staff to screen inmates for immigration offenses.

Officials in Sussex County are currently in a stand-off with the attorney general’s office over whether it can place a question on the November ballot asking voters to decide whether the county sheriff should follow the directive.

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