MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Maplewood has always prided itself on being forward-thinking and the Township Committee is looking to take yet another step by declaring the township a “sanctuary city.” The topic created much discussion at the committee’s Dec. 6 meeting, with the committee ultimately deciding to move ahead in crafting legislation to be considered in early 2017.
A sanctuary city is a community in which local law enforcement and public officials are directed not to aid federal efforts to find and prosecute undocumented immigrants beyond the scope of state law. This issue has been raised in municipalities across the country in light of President-elect Donald Trump stating in interviews that he plans to deputize local law enforcement officers to enforce immigration law — a federal jurisdiction — and that he will cut off federal funding to all sanctuary cities. Committeeman Ian Grodman had first proposed Maplewood seek this designation at the Nov. 14 Township Committee meeting.
“A sanctuary community, or a sanctuary city, essentially means that our township and resources are not going to be expended to track down and locate and assist in the removal of people from the United States based on their immigration status,” Grodman said at the Dec. 6 meeting. “It does not mean that we become a community that welcomes thousands and thousands of people living in tent cities and protect them from federal authorities. It does not mean we protect people who are convicted felons who are in the position of federal authorities or state authorities or other authorities other than local governments.”
Committeeman Greg Lembrich agreed that this is the right move for Maplewood, arguing that it is a matter of equal protection for all residents.
“I wholeheartedly support this step for Maplewood,” Lembrich said at the meeting. “I think that, while certainly other communities have done this before, I think that there may be a whole host of new reasons for communities to designate themselves as sanctuary communities and I hope that Maplewood can be a leader among that group.”
He added that Maplewood and surrounding communities need to go “beyond immigration status, look to make sure that we are letting our residents know and people working in this community know that we are committed to protecting them from adverse action, not just based on immigration status, but adverse action based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other immutable characteristic.”
Deputy Mayor Nancy Adams advocated for the designation as a means to send a message that Maplewood stands behind everyone who lives in the town.
“I think because of the current administration … we need to send a really strong message to Washington,” Adams said at the meeting. “As someone who’s more afraid of loss of federal funding, it’s even more important to me to power through on Mr. Grodman’s suggestion on this.”
While Committeeman-elect Frank McGehee is definitely in favor of the designation, he warned against making such decisions in order to make a statement.
“I think what we heard tonight and what we’ve been reading through the press and social media is that our town wants to make a statement, but I think we should make a decision for the right reasons and not for the wrong reasons, regardless of our president-elect and what he and his administration represent,” McGehee said. “It is more important for us to make a statement about what we represent.”
While Larrier agreed with the underlying meaning of being designated a sanctuary city, she was reticent to fully approve the designation.
“I’m reserved about designating Maplewood as a sanctuary city,” she said. “It’s more the policies that we put in place than the designation.”
She added that she would like to see a resolution put forward outlining the township’s position. She also suggested instead becoming a “welcoming city” as Baltimore did, meaning a city that is focused, instead of on not helping ICE, on fostering mutual respect and cooperation.
Mayor Vic DeLuca spoke in favor of the designation, saying that before any formal move is made, the township must consult with the police department. But ultimately, he is in favor of the proposal.
“I think they are our residents and I think we swore on the Bible, the constitution of the both the United States and the state of New Jersey, and that means that we have to represent them and look out for their interests too,” DeLuca said. “We need to send a clear message that we are not enforcing immigration law — we are enforcing state law and keeping people safe.”
In addition to comments from the committee, more than a dozen community members spoke out at the meeting, many for the proposal, and some against it.
“I really appreciate this initiative to have a sanctuary city,” Maplewood resident Ananda Lima said. “I think that it’s just the right thing to do as people, as a community and you know it’s a protection of the most vulnerable. Of course it’s good to think through this decision, but you know ultimately in times when there is potential danger people have done much harder things in the past. This is something that is the right thing for us to do as a community.”
Maplewood resident Pamela Erens agreed, saying: “I am speaking as a citizen who is quite concerned by all the anti-immigration rhetoric that rose up the 2016 election cycle and the threats of anti-immigrant action that have been put forth by the current administration that has been elected.”
Maplewood resident and immigration defense attorney Rachel Salazar spoke at length about problems with the county’s immigration law and the damaging rhetoric regarding deporting those who have had past brushes with the law.
“What I also want people here to know is that to be a sanctuary city, it is not the same thing as harboring illegal aliens, or illegal immigrants, or criminal immigrants. That’s not what it is,” Salazar said. “Trump has already stated that he is going to ask local law enforcement to be deputized to do the work that now immigrations and customs enforcement is charged with doing. That means, if somebody gets pulled over for a routine traffic violation and that person appears to be a non-citizen, they can be asked about their immigration status, their response can lead to being put in detention and being removed from the United States. This is just immoral, it is just wrong. It makes me so proud to know Maplewood is standing up against this injustice.”
Many more spoke in favor of the designation, even some from neighboring South Orange.
But two speakers had a number of questions regarding the proposal, including Maplewood resident Jim Nathanson.
“I feel the anguish and the pain and the difficulty that this population faces,” Nathanson said. “But, in addition to claims of these undocumented individuals, there are numerous competing claims by individuals who have emigrated by established legal channels, by American citizens who may have been displaced in labor contracts, and by taxpayers who directly or indirectly pay for the additional social and or health care services or required support of the undocumented community.”
Nathanson inquired as to whether the town had already taken any action on this in the past, and DeLuca said the Township Council has only had the short conversations that resulted in discussing the designation. DeLuca also added that undocumented immigrants currently living in Maplewood qualify for town services.
Nathanson also pointed to Trump’s threat of cutting off funding. “I have no idea whether this would actually happen or whether it would withstand the inevitable court challenges, but I guess I’d ask, is it a risk that you should consider? How much does Maplewood actually receive either directly or indirectly from federal funding?” he asked.
“It is relatively minor,” DeLuca said, explaining that federal funding to Maplewood is in the low six figures. “We get Community Development Block Grant money; we get some money from our health services; we get some money for grants, things like that, police grants, department of transportation.”
Lembrich added that, although a funding cut would also affect the school district, he is not too concerned since Maplewood would have a lot of “powerful deep-pocketed allies” that are already sanctuary cities.
“Sanctuary cities have been in existence in the United States for about 30 years and in those 30 years there has never been a loss of federal funding to community for being a sanctuary city,” Grodman said, adding that being a sanctuary city “addresses the fact that there are things going on politically in this country that are classifying people and discriminating people and harming people based on their status. I’ve heard a number of people talk about the fact that we cannot do this because of the potential based on a threat that federal funding will be taken away if we are to become a sanctuary community — that has never happened.
“How far is this going to go before people stop succumbing to these kinds of threats?” Grodman asked.
Nathanson’s biggest concern was the precedent it might set for future cooperation between the Maplewood and the federal government.
“If you adopt this proposal, are you sort of implicitly making a general statement that it’s OK for Maplewood, as a matter of conscience, to go and refuse to cooperate with any federal law with which it disagrees?” Nathanson said, asking further if the township might decide to make guns illegal here. “If local governments across the land feel free to decide as a matter of conscience which federal laws they will comply or not comply with, or enforce or not enforce, or the enforcement of which they will not support, are we inviting chaos?”
But the committee members denied that becoming a sanctuary city would counter federal law.
“We need to ensure that our police are doing what they are supposed to be doing in that they are not stopping people based on their immigration status, they are not helping ICE with their immigration investigations,” Larrier said. “I don’t think we need to necessarily call ourselves a ‘sanctuary city’ in order to do that.”
Former Maplewood Department of Public Works Director Eric Burbank also spoke out against the proposed designation.
“I’m all for sanctuary as far as protecting human beings,” Burbank said, but stressed that he believes undocumented immigrants with felony records should be deported. “If they don’t have any felonies and they’re just here illegally and you want to look the other way, fine, look the other way,” he said.
He also said that, while the designation might not affect the municipal budget, it will affect American jobs. “I see that on a daily basis,” he said, adding that at his own job many employees are afraid of losing their positions to undocumented immigrants who work for less.
“Just because you live in a diverse town, that does not make you a diverse person; it may make you feel good, but that’s not the same thing,” Burbank warned.