With opposition mounting to Cape May County ICE plan, sheriff seeks to calm families

 The Cape May County Sheriff’s Office. (Bill Barlow/for NewsWorks)

The Cape May County Sheriff’s Office. (Bill Barlow/for NewsWorks)

It looks like a storm is brewing on the Jersey Cape over a move to give sheriff’s department officers training and expanded powers on immigration enforcement.

The department has sought training for three officers under a federal program known as 287(g), which allows for training and support at the local level through the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE.

Some locals see this as a step too far, and oppose connecting criminal law enforcement with immigration enforcement, fearing it could discourage undocumented residents from talking to police, or even reporting crimes. They say the move makes an already marginalized population even more vulnerable.

Opponents crowded a recent county Board of Freeholders meeting, asking the all-Republican board to block the proposal. They plan to be back next week, at the next regular meeting of the board 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, at 4 Moore Road off the Garden State Parkway. So far, in addition to county residents, representatives of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, and the ACLU have spoken against bringing the program to Cape May County.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

But Sheriff Gary Schaffer sees the concern as overblown, and said the opponents are unnecessarily scaring families. He said he wants to calm things down. If the feds approve an agreement with Cape May County, the three officers will be at the county jail, and he says they will not leave the jail.

“We’re not going out looking for anybody. We’re not going out to pick anyone up,” Schaffer said. “The only way you get involved is if you are in our jail.

“If you don’t break the law, you won’t go to jail.”

He said he has neither the manpower nor any desire to expand beyond that.

What’s more, he said, while his office applied for the program some time ago, he hasn’t even heard whether the department will be accepted. He hopes to learn soon.

“We should have heard something by now, but we haven’t,” he said.

According to ICE, there are 287 (g) agreements in 16 states, including three in New Jersey, all centered in county jails. Salem County recently joined Hudson County and Monmouth County in the program.

The sheriff’s department provides security in the Superior Court and runs the county jail, among other duties. He’s applied for a four-week training program for three of his officers. One of the officers handles investigations, another is fluent in Spanish, and the third is fluent in Russian, he said.

In recent years, Cape May County has seen a considerable increase in its Spanish-speaking population, including many from Mexico. It’s difficult to track just how many, but many local Roman Catholic churches now offer weekly Mass in Spanish, and in Wildwood, close to half of the students in the Glenwood Avenue elementary school speak Spanish at home.

Jessica Culley, the coordinator for an advocacy group for migrant farm workers, called CATA from a Spanish acronym, understands that under the proposal the officers would operate only in the jail. She still doesn’t like it.

“Our concern is there are a lot of ways that people get pulled into our criminal justice system,” she said. For undocumented workers, something as simple as driving a car can be anything but. They can’t legally get a license in New Jersey, and for a migrant population, it’s easy to miss a summons for a court appearance, which could generate a warrant. “They could have a bench warrant for a traffic offense, or possibly the charges could be dropped, but if their immigration status is being checked at the same time, they may never be allowed to leave.”

In immigration court, there is no right to an attorney, she said. If someone can’t afford representation, the government is not obliged to provide it, and the organizations that provide those services pro bono are overwhelmed.

Cape May County has few farm workers compared to Cumberland County or Gloucester County, where CATA has its office. But a number of undocumented workers live at the shore, many working in hotels, landscaping crews and restaurant kitchens.

Opponents plan to rally outside next week’s freeholder meeting, as well as present speakers inside, although Schaffer said the program does not need a vote from the county governing body. The application itself seems to have received almost no notice, until someone from AFSC began to reach out to local groups.

Fred Long of Lower Township, who spoke against the proposal once, and plans to be there again next week, said he was surprised by the number of people who attended the last Freeholder meeting. Long said people are worried about the country, and the impact of President Trump, who signed an executive order expanding 287 (g) in January.

“It just plays on the fear that’s present in the country at the moment,” Long said in a phone interview.

He also dislikes the idea of local officers doing federal work, which he suggested is a bad deal for county taxpayers.

“When you start getting local law enforcement to enforce federal laws, that’s trouble in my view,” he said.

Even if officers won’t be looking for immigrants in local communities, Long does not want to see local officers enforcing immigration rules. He added that there is no requirement to participate.

“This is optional for the county. They’ve made a choice. I think it’s a bad choice,” he said.

But according to Schaffer, his officers already check immigration status when someone ends up in the county jail. His staff calls ICE for a background search for anyone born outside of the United States, he said, cooperation that goes back 10 years. There’s also criminal background check for anyone brought in, he said, so for instance if someone in county is wanted on a felony charge in Ohio, that person will be held.

But what about someone who gets caught up in a minor offense who then ends up separated from their family?

“You are never getting in our jail on a minor offense under bail reform,” said Schaffer, referring to a change that went into effect this year, under which local prosecutors must show cause to hold a suspect before trial.In addition to the training, he said, the main thing his office will get out of the arrangement will be ICE computers, which the trained officers will be able to access. That means instead of calling in for a check, the officers will be able to run the check themselves.

Schaffer, who has decided not to run for reelection this year, referenced a case in which Maximiliano Ramos was held at the request of ICE. He said he did not know what country Ramos was from, nor did he want to. According to Schaffer, Ramos entered the United States illegally in 2012. The next year, he failed to appear in court. He was arrested and released on theft charges in North Wildwood in 2014 and then again in Cape May in ’16. This year, he was charged with a sexual assault on a teenager in Wildwood, Schaffer said. Under bail reform, he was set to be released, and he made bail for a warrant arrest for contempt, but the ICE retainer kept him in jail.

“Without that, you would have had someone who to my mind is a sexual predator back in the street,” Schaffer said.

According to ICE, 287(g) dates from the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility act” of 1996. The section allows the director of ICE to enter agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies to allow designated officers to enforce immigration law, after training and under the supervision of ICE officers.

The agency has 37 such agreements so far.

“The bottom line is, if you get in my jail because you break a criminal law, we’re going to run a check on you,” Schaffer said. “I am not going to apologize for keeping the residents of Cape May County or the tourists safe.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal