The newly-formed Jersey City Immigration Commission will prepare a response to a memo from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that ordered the city to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement or lose federal dollars.
At their second meeting since being established, the JCIC discussed how to respond to the federal demand that could result in the loss of more than $9 million in federal aid.
Sessions released a memo on June 4 defining “sanctuary jurisdictions,” a term for local governments that refuse to fully comply with federal immigration laws.
Sessions said that those cities that meet his definition will be ineligible to receive grants from the Departments of Justice or Homeland Security.
Mayor Steven Fulop and the City Council earlier this year declared Jersey City a sanctuary city so the city would likely fall into the category for loss of aid.
Under Sessions’ revised definition, “sanctuary jurisdictions” will be those that “willfully refuse to comply” with a federal law that requires federal, state and local government agents to share individuals’ immigration status with immigration authorities.
Jersey City and Union City have already said they would refuse to share information with federal authorities unless a warrant is issued, and would not give immigration information through any of its departments to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
Hudson County, however, does cooperate on a number of levels with ICE, including housing people detained by ICE and who are waiting processing by an immigration court. Some municipalities have stopped short of full sanctuary cities and are simply refusing to allow their departments to reveal information. Sessions’ memo, however, tightens the screws, saying aid would be withheld for any town refusing the share information on undocumented immigrants.
The memo clarified an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in January, and would theoretically force local governments to cooperate.
But the new rules limit the sanctions against cities to only two grant categories, grants that are within the purview of the attorney general and head of Homeland Security to provide or not provide.
“We need to review this before we can respond.” – Imtiaz A. Syed.
While Jersey City officials have made it clear they will not cooperate with ICE, other municipalities have unofficial policies and generally “play it by ear” as to what information is shared, limiting reporting to those who have been charged with serious or violent crimes.
The Hudson County Correctional Facility automatically checks for immigrant status on violent offenders who are then reported to ICE.
“We need to review this before we can respond,” said Imtiaz A. Syed, chairman of the JCIC.
He also said the commission needs an estimated amount that the city could lose. Under an executive order issued by Trump in January, the city risked losing about $9 million. This figure could be lower under the new rules.
Members of the city’s law department told the commissioners that they need to work with the City Council to develop a response.
The nine-member commission was founded early this year to advise the city on immigration issues. It followed threats from President Trump to withhold federal funding from cities like Jersey City that have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities and refuse to assist federal efforts to deport or detain immigrants without benefit of warrants and other protections offered to American citizens by the U.S. Constitution.
Commission to form legal aid clinic
Although the city originally offered legal advice to potential ICE targets, it has since canceled the program, something Commissioner Rosa Santana said must be restored in some fashion or another.
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) help immigrants learn their rights, but in many cases, those who are detained or questioned do not have access to legal advice. In detention, immigrants often do not get the medical treatment they need even though they are not charged with any crime.
In some cases, detainees might be able to get out on bail. But the bail is so high they often can’t raise the funds. The average bail is about $5,000. The lowest is about $1,500.
“Most detainees have no legal rights, and might be better off in a regular prison,” said Rev. Birgit Solano, pastor of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Weehawken.
Many detainees are kept away from family and sometimes they’re moved far from where a family can easily access them and it is hard to keep track of where they have been moved.
While some sanctuary cities do directly provide legal services to immigrants, the city’s law department suspended its program because it became “uncomfortable” providing such services on city property. The city also wanted to have non-profit groups serve as partners in these clinics.
The city does have contact with federal citizenship agencies that would provide information for helping immigrants seek legal status.
Santana said the commission needs to establish a clinic even off site that could bring people together with legal advisors free to help them map out strategies against deportation and to help guide them towards finding legal status.
Rolando Lavarro, who serves as a commissioner as well as president of the City Council, said the commission needs to get a ruling from the legal department on whether the commission can established these clinics off site.
“I want this opinion in writing,” he said.
Syed said he wanted a clearer explanation from the city as to why the program was suspended in the first place.
Housing for undocumented and others
Commissioners are also looking to develop a program with local churches that would provide housing for undocumented immigrants.
This, Pam Andes, executive director of JCIC, said is a kind of bridge. “This would be church to church to church, and would keep them from having to go into the system,” she said.
This would apply to those at risk of deportation and face other immigration hardships, she said.
There are other options that might be used to help house people without having to go through a program that would require reporting to federal authorities.
Many of the federally-funded programs through HUD could leave undocumented people vulnerable to being detained.
“We’ve even talked about possibly using Airbnb,” Andes said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.