A recent report on the extent to which state, county and local law enforcement agencies in New Jersey have been cooperating with federal immigration authorities has not received much attention so I am shining a light on it.

What I find particularly striking and upsetting is what it shows about the jail in Essex County, where I live. There are more instances of Essex County Corrections working with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) than in all other 20 counties combined. Essex County has even collaborated more than the state Department of Corrections and thus the entire state prison system. 

The Immigrant Trust Directive  

The report, released last month, is required by the Immigrant Trust Directive, No, 2018-6, issued by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in November 2018. Applicable to state and local police officers, correctional officers working in state prisons and county jails, and state and county prosecutors, the directive limits the types of assistance that New Jersey’s 36,000 law enforcement officers may provide to federal immigration authorities.

The directive, which took effect on March 15, 2019, requires an annual report so the first one, released in November 2020, runs from that date until the end of 2019.

It limits cooperation with ICE to what is legally required by virtue of law or court order and does so for the stated purpose of preserving trust and cooperation between immigrant communities and law enforcement in order to protect public safety.  

Thus, law enforcement officers in NJ may not help enforce ICE detainers or administrative warrants or orders. They may not ask about immigration status unless relevant to or necessary to the offense at issue nor may they stop, question, arrest, search or detain anyone based solely on immigration status or suspected violation of immigration laws. With limited exceptions (which include enforcing of NJ criminal laws, complying with applicable federal, state  and local law or a valid request or order from a court, exigent circumstances, and joint taskforce operations whose primary purpose is not related to civil immigration enforcement), they may not take part in immigration enforcement operations, provide ICE with nonpublic personally identifying information (such as SSN, driver’s license number, unlisted  phone number, bank or credit information) or let ICE use equipment, office space, data, etc.  Subject to those same exceptions, they also may not provide ICE access to a detainee for an interview without the detainee’s informed written consent, or notify ICE of an upcoming release or hold onto someone for ICE past the time they are eligible for release, unless that person is charged with, or has been convicted within the last five years, of a violent or serious offense (defined in the Directive) or is subject to a deportation order that has been signed by a federal judge and is in the possession of the prison or jail.

The Directive emphasizes that no law enforcement agency in NJ need do anything for ICE beyond what is required by law, stating: “This Directive does not mandate that law enforcement officials provide assistance in any particular circumstance, even when by the terms of the Directive, they are permitted to do so.”   

Despite that caveat and all the Directive’s prohibitions, cooperation with ICE (presumably within the exceptions) occurred more than 1,300 times during the nine and one half months covered by the report. And Essex County was responsible for more than half of those times.

Such collaboration by any county with ICE is troubling given that the agency, long known for ripping people from their families and communities and incarcerating them for indefinite periods before deporting them, got even worse under Trump, escalating those activities, denying refugees the opportunity to apply for asylum and taking thousands of children from parents and then losing track of some of them. (As of October, the parents of 545 of them still had not been found.)

Essex is overwhelmingly Democratic, has a large immigrant population and its largest city, Newark, the seat of the County government and the situs of the County jail, has proclaimed itself a sanctuary city. But it is also one of three counties in NJ that are currently housing ICE detainees, bringing in about $40 million per year for Essex. That contract has brought sustained and vocal opposition from community, faith and other groups, who have been urging Essex to end the arrangement. Their efforts, bolstered by a scathing federal report in 2019 on the conditions in which detainees are housed at the Essex County Jail. have had an impact. In 2020, the County governing body, the Essex County Freeholders (renamed Commissioners as of Jan. 1, 2020), established a civilian oversight board to monitor jail conditions for detainees and the President of the Freeholder/Commissioner Board, Brendan Gill, has spoken out publicly against the County’s contract with ICE. And last June, the Board went so far as to pass a symbolic resolution calling for release of the detainees during the pandemic.

Still, somehow, Essex continues to profit from their detention and has done far more to help ICE than any other county, including Bergen and Hudson, which have their own contracts with ICE. Essex County’s 700 or so reported instances of cooperation dwarf the fewer than 100 reported by Bergen. And Hudson has only one.

In contrast, Sussex County, where county officials staked out a position in opposition to the state directive and voters in November 2019 overwhelmingly approved a referendum in favor of cooperation with ICE, showed almost no cooperation during 2019, at least—just 3 instances where it gave ICE a heads up on an impending release. (Sussex number’s might be low though because it began transferring its inmates to Morris County on July 1, 2019 and ceased operating its own jail by fall of 2019.

What the Numbers Show  

Not a single county provided assistance in two areas—participating in enforcement operations or allowing ICE access to law enforcement assets. Nor did the DOC.

With regard to providing ICE with non-public personally identifying information, only two counties –Camden and Cape May – did so—Camden twice and Cape May 30 times.

Multiple counties, however, allowed ICE to interview a detained individual (551 instances by 10 counties and the DOC), tipped ICE off about a prisoner’s upcoming release (779 instances by 18 counties and the DOC) and held onto them past their release eligibility (403 instances by 10 counties), though they are not allowed to do so past midnight of the release eligibility date.

For Essex those numbers are 360 ICE interviews, 168 tipoffs and 168 holds. The identical number of tipoffs and holds would seem to indicate that Essex was not only kind enough to let ICE know it was about to release someone but obligingly held on to that same individual until ICE could come and grab them on the way out. 

The DOC gave ICE tipoffs even more frequently than Essex, on 238 occasions, but it never held onto anyone for ICE. It allowed 124 ICE interviews, roughly one-third the Essex number.

Other than Essex, the counties that did the most for ICE were Bergen (2 interviews, 49 tipoffs and 44 holds), Cape May (30 interviews, 11 tip-offs and 11 holds as well as 30 instances of supplying personal information), Middlesex (7 interviews, 70 tipoffs and 70 holds), Monmouth (2, 25 and 25), Morris (0, 36 and 35), and Ocean (0, 44 and 21).  

Surprisingly, the report shows almost no cooperation from Sussex County—just three tipoffs about an impending release and nothing else. Yet County officials in Sussex vociferously opposed the Directive and put the question of cooperation with ICE to a referendum in November 2019 that won overwhelming approval from voters. One reason Sussex’s numbers might be low is that it began transferring its inmates to Morris County on July 1, 2019 and ceased operating its own jail by fall of 2019.

At the local level, the report shows collaboration with ICE by less than a handful of the state’s hundreds of police departments. A mere three in three counties, none of them in Essex, rendered minimal assistance. The Lawrence Township Department in Mercer took part in one ICE enforcement action. The Lakewood police in Ocean County provided ICE with non-public personal identifying information on one occasion and the Plainfield police in Union County notified ICE about one release and delayed one release, presumably the same one.

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