Posted on November 9, 2019

In Blue New Jersey, a Conservative Backlash on Immigration

Tracey Tully, New York Times, November 8, 2019

A referendum on Tuesday’s ballot in New Jersey’s northernmost county asked whether voters wanted local officials to cooperate with federal immigration agents.

It passed by a lopsided 2-to-1 margin.

Nearly 200 miles away, along the state’s southern swath, a directive by the state attorney general that in part bars county sheriff officers from doing the work of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents has led two counties to file federal lawsuits. A third county has threatened legal action.

The state attorney general’s rule not only precipitated the lawsuits, but also became a key election issue, generating support for Republican candidates who successfully ousted incumbent Democrats in a conservative district that cuts across Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic Counties.


But in reliably blue New Jersey, where the governor was elected on a promise to usher in a liberal agenda, there remain pockets of defiance to progressive immigration policy and what critics have labeled the “sanctuary state scam.”

“It was a rallying cry,” said Antwan McClellan, a Republican elected on Tuesday to the Assembly who works as the personnel director and assistant to the Cape May County sheriff. “People were concerned about their safety.” The sheriff filed one of the lawsuits against the attorney general.


The state’s Democratic attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, first issued the Immigrant Trust Directive a year ago, but it did not take hold until March.

It laid out rules that blocked local and state law enforcement officers from asking people about their immigration status, or from helping federal immigration agents as they make detention arrests. It allows law enforcement officers to turn over undocumented immigrants charged with certain crimes to ICE agents, but only if those agents pick up the migrants on the day of their release.


In Sussex County, the referendum was placed on the ballot by the county freeholders, at the request of the sheriff, who was re-elected on Tuesday. The state’s Republican chairman, Doug Steinhardt, helped to draft the wording that asked whether voters were in favor of county government providing support to ICE agents.

“It’s about putting public safety above politics,” said the Sussex County sheriff, Michael F. Strada. “The attorney general and the governor are endangering our communities.”

But not all law enforcement officers agree.

Chief Ahmed Naga, the police chief in Long Hill, N.J., said most nonelected law enforcement officials support the attorney general’s directive and consider it important for effective crime fighting.


Across a picturesque town square that appears lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting, campaign signs remained planted in a traffic median a day after the election. “Stop the sanctuary scam,” several read.


John J. Farmer Jr., the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said the areas of resistance to the attorney general’s directive “speaks to the fact that New Jersey is in some sense a divided state.”

“You have pockets of very Republican areas,” he said, “that are sympathetic to the president’s agenda.”

In Sussex County, 62 percent of voters supported Mr. Trump for president over Hillary Clinton in a state that as a whole backed Mrs. Clinton by 14 percentage points.

Still, it remains unclear how issues like immigration will impact Democratic House members running for re-election next year in districts where, for now, it remains a powerful talking point, he said.


Kathy O’Leary, the New Jersey coordinator for Pax Christi, a Roman Catholic peace movement, said she believes there are similarities between the ballot referendum, and the willingness of some Democrat-led counties, like Essex, to accept federal funds to house detained immigrants.