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Ocean County Prepares to Sue State AG Over (Lack Of) ICE Cooperation at Jail

The Ocean County Justice Complex, Toms River, N.J. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

The Ocean County Justice Complex, Toms River, N.J. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

The Ocean County freeholders have authorized the county attorney to prepare for litigation to fight a directive from state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal that prohibits much of the cooperation between Ocean County Jail corrections officers and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The move was applauded by some state lawmakers, and Ocean County is the first local government agency to openly threaten litigation on the matter, though the basis for the complaint would be different from more highly-publicized rows over the issue that involve the sheriffs from Cape May and Monmouth Counties. Unlike those counties, Ocean County authorities do not participate in the so-called “287(g)” program, wherein local officers are deputized as ICE agents and can enforce federal law themselves. Such participation would present logistical problems in Ocean County, where the sheriff’s office is a separate agency from the county’s Department of Corrections.

“We were completely cooperating with ICE prior to the AG’s directive,” said County Administrator Carl Block. “We are still cooperating with ICE to this very moment, so from that standpoint it hasn’t changed.”

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The breath of that cooperation, however, is being challenged by Grewal’s directive, officials say.

“There are questions that have arisen as to whether the attorney general can restrict cooperation with a federal law enforcement agency enforcing federal law,” Block said.

The Ocean County freeholders authorized litigation following a pre-board conference meeting last week, however the board has yet to make a final determination as to whether the federal action will be filed or not.

For corrections officials, this means playing a waiting game.

“There have been minor changes” to the daily cooperation with ICE at the jail, said Block. “We actually had an office in the jail where we allowed the ICE officer to enter. He usually brought his own laptop, which was the jail’s decision. Like corrections officers, he would get details on inmates, and he would make decisions after going through reports and files, to see if he wanted to have a conversation with someone.”

Now, an ICE agent has access only to the same information members of the public can obtain from the jail’s web-based inmate search function. Officials fear the lack of cooperation could lead to an arrestee in the country illegally slipping through the cracks of the system, or someone with a federal detainer request from ICE being let out of the jail before the federal agency knows they are there.

“They’re only looking for people who were wanted a crime somewhere else,” said Block. “They had offenders they were looking for – criminals, either convicted or alleged, in different jurisdictions – they did the interview and made a determination on whether to transfer them to a federal facility.”

Officials have expressed to Shorebeat that detailed information on suspected criminals jailed for minor offenses here could led officers to find a person wanted for a more serious offense elsewhere. Illegal immigrants jailed for major crimes – third degree of higher – should still be reported to ICE under the recently-updated state guidelines.

“It could be shoplifting in Ocean County, but the person is wanted for murder in Texas,” said Block.

Representatives from Grewal’s office have argued that limiting the ability of local law enforcement to coordinate with ICE helps build relationships between police and immigrant communities by easing concerns of those in the U.S. illegally to report major crimes and assist in investigations rather than fear being a target. It is in line with similar guidelines passed by states with Democratic governors, like California and Oregon. Gov. Phil Murphy, who took office in 2018, has openly stated he is willing to make New Jersey a “sanctuary state,” angering Republicans, especially in Ocean County, home of the state’s GOP base.

Effective in March 2019, the so-called “Immigrant Trust Directive” was established to counter the aggressive immigration policies of President Donald Trump.

“We are a nation of laws, and the governor cannot pick and choose which laws to follow or not follow based on emotions rather than facts,” Assemblyman Gregory P. McGuckin, who represents northern Ocean County, said in a statement. “If you are an illegal immigrant and you commit an additional crime on New Jersey soil, our jails shouldn’t have their hands tied and be forced to look the other way.”

The Ocean County Freeholders are “not only prioritizing public safety over politics, they are ensuring our tax dollars are not wasted on criminals who shouldn’t be here in the first place,” McGuckin went on to say.

“Our Attorney General should spend less time hindering local law enforcement from doing their job, and switch his focus to enhancing public safety for New Jersey’s citizens,” said Assemblyman Dave Wolfe.

State Sen. James Holzapfel, a former Ocean County prosecutor, said Murphy has a “preoccupation” with the immigration issue that is “baffling and flat-out wrong.”

Two highly-publicized controversies made headlines last week in New Jersey. The Monmouth County Sheriff’s Department and the Cape May County Sheriff’s Department renewed their 287(g) agreements with ICE despite Grewal’s directive, though Monmouth County inked the renewal just before the new guidelines were released. Those counties are submitting details of their agreements to the AG’s office for review. In Ocean County, the dispute is over a much more broad form of cooperation with ICE – a case that has the potential to quickly rocket through the court system and become important precedent for other localities – generally in Republican-controlled areas of Democratic-controlled states – whose leaders disagree with the idea of limiting their cooperation with the federal government with regard to cases of criminal aliens.

Unlike Monmouth and Cape May counties in New Jersey, Ocean County never participated in the 287(g) program, though not as a political statement, Block said. Those counties have a combined operation in which the sheriff oversees street-level officer as well as correctional staff. In Ocean County, the sheriff is limited to law enforcement, and a separate corrections department controls the jail.

“We’re split, so the discussion would’ve always been who you’d give that power to,” said Block. “Do you put corrections officers on the street? It never came to be here and it’s not something, at this point, we’re discussing.”

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