After making 37 arrests in New Jersey’s Middlesex County over five days in July, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Newark office issued a press release that assailed local officials.
“Middlesex County, which aspires to be a ‘sanctuary county’ by protecting criminal aliens, in the process assists criminals in undermining federal law,” Ruben Perez, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations Newark bureau chief, said in the release. This “creates a dangerous environment in the community.”
ICE said the operation specifically targeted immigrants Middlesex County authorities had freed without honoring an ICE detainer or informing the federal agency of the release. (Sixteen of the 37 been held in the Middlesex County Jail, ICE said.) The release further confirmed suspicions that ICE is targeting the county.
A year earlier, the county legislature passed a resolution that limits the sheriff department’s cooperation with ICE. The county would decline to honor 48-hour civil detainer requests, except for people who have previously been charged with first- or second-degree serious offenses or those with a signed deportation order. The first category includes 22 offenses, ranging from homicide to theft.
“I don’t think the Middlesex policy is the most progressive or liberal policy,” said Chia-Chia Wang, the organizing and advocacy director at the American Friends Service Committee. “But they do try to do their part and provide equal access to justice for immigrant and citizen residents.”
Since the policy was passed, ICE has blamed Middlesex County for the release of immigrants several times in other press releases. It has singled out Middlesex County Jail in particular.
Middlesex County is largely suburban but includes municipalities like Perth Amboy and New Brunswick. It has a population of about 840,000 and is fairly diverse, with about half of the population identifying as Asian or Latino, according to census data. It’s also a mostly Democratic county that went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
Some New Jersey advocates for immigrants have begun to call policies that prevent localities or counties from fully cooperating with ICE detainers, “fair and welcoming,” rather than sanctuary policies, as that term implies the immigrants are fully protected by the local government.
“No matter what the policy says, the county can’t keep ICE out of Middlesex County,” said Johanna Calle, the director of the NJ Alliance for Immigrant Justice. The county has also rejected the label “sanctuary.”
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“I just want to make some comments in reference to some published reports that Middlesex County has declared itself a sanctuary county. That is totally not true,” Ronald Rios, head of the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, who are in charge of county legislation, said at a meeting last year, according to New Brunswick Today.
“We stand by our statement that Middlesex is a sanctuary county,” ICE’s ERO Newark office said in a statement provided to Documented.
“Middlesex County is compromising public safety by not honoring ICE detainers. A list of those dangerous criminals released back into the community, with no communication with ICE, as noted in our latest press release, should be of concern to all residents of Middlesex,” the statement said.
ICE has also called out other New Jersey counties like Burlington County, Camden County and Somerset County for not honoring immigration detainers. The agency has also assailed New York City for similar behavior.
“It’s definitely retaliation,” said Sarah Cullinane, director of the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey. “They’ve been doing targeted raids and very heavy PR afterwards.”
Recently Middlesex County has seen several high profile skirmishes between ICE and local residents.
Cloyd Edralin was among a group of 91 immigrants arrested by ICE in New Jersey in June. He was arrested for an 11-year-old conviction for possession of an air rifle. The father of four had been renewing his green card yearly since then. The arrest drew protests from the community.
“This operation focuses on the arrest of individuals convicted of serious crimes and are a threat to public safety. Because of the targeted efforts of these professional officers, there are 91 fewer criminals in our communities,” Tsoukaris said in a release about the arrests.
Multiple arrests of immigrants at the county court by ICE inspired a group of volunteers to form a patrol, called Detention and Immigration Response to Emergency team. The volunteers pace around the grounds of the courthouse, wearing neon vests, keeping an eye out of ICE agents.
In January, three Indonesian undocumented immigrants took sanctuary at the Reformed Church of Highland Park after narrowly escaping arrests by ICE. One of the men in sanctuary was recently honored by the community for helping to rebuild 200 homes that were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Those arrests an created an outcry as well.
Calle, the director of the NJ Alliance for Immigrant Justice, says the group has drafted a “fair and welcoming policy’ for other counties to pass and is shopping it around. Some counties and cities in New Jersey, like Newark, have similar policies to Middlesex’s. They also draw the ire of ICE, the advocates say.
“There are 21 counties in the state of New Jersey, 565 municipalities. The state has to move forward and do something. There has to be clarity,” Calle said. “Middlesex County should not be the only county holding down the fort.”
Calle says ICE is trying to put pressure on the county to back out or change its policy. “They did that from day one,” she said. “We passed the policy; a month later they apprehended a lot of people.”
Although immigration arrests in New Jersey have surged under the Trump administration, according to ICE data, the advocates admit it’s difficult to discern whether enforcement has risen in Middlesex County versus the surrounding counties. The feeling they’ve been singled out comes from the people ICE is targeting now and the messaging ICE uses in its communications, explained Ellen Whitt, an advocate with Immigrant Rights Committee of the Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War.
“I think the message is, ‘No other county in New Jersey better do this, or we will torture you as well,’” Whitt said.