Highland Park considering becoming a ‘sanctuary city’

February 13, 2017
By Spencer Kent

HIGHLAND PARK – The borough will consider next week whether it should try to protect its immigrant community by becoming a “sanctuary city.”

The resolution creating the designation would be a shift from previous statements by borough officials who had said that declaring sanctuary status lacked substance and merely served as a symbolic measure.

President Trump’s recent executive orders instructs federal officials to strictly enforce immigration laws and vows to deprive federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities — a broad term used to describe municipalities that work to protect law-abiding unauthorized immigrants.

Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler was among those who previously said she believed the term was too loosely defined, saying that she preferred to protect immigrant residents through substantive actions.

“The resolution we are looking at will have a clear definition,” she said.

Though the policy details have not been fully worked out, Mittler said a task force would create specifics. Highland Park has already begun a municipal photo identification program available to all residents, including immigrants.

Joshua Henne, a local Democratic strategist, said communities should create clear policies to protect immigrants, and that this is not an impossible task.

“All folks are asking for is to make sure our local municipalities won’t become deputized police forces for Trump’s mass deportations,” Henne said.

New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill recently said in a statement that the city’s police department would comply with local, state and federal immigration investigations, a comment that provoked a backlash from residents and a protest outside city hall last week.

Nonetheless, she told NJ Advance Media that an ordinance declaring sanctuary status would seek to include clear-cut measures of how the borough planned to protect its immigrant community.

The Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, said declaring sanctuary status is more than symbolic but also a way for towns to thwart officials from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from coming into communities and conducting investigations.

“When ICE is trying to meet their quotas they go for low-hanging fruits,” said Kaper-Dale, who is also New Jersey’s Green Party gubernatorial candidate. “And you don’t want to go to a place where you think local government is going to get in your way.”

Kaper-Dale, who has advocated for several years to protect immigrants and helped to resettle refugees in his community, including from Syria, is also calling on officials to go beyond declaring sanctuary status.

He is working with roughly 60 congregations throughout the state to form a volunteer unit called the Deportation and Immigration Response Emergency team (DIRE), which he said would rush to wherever ICE officials were investigating. He said this could be done by local governments agreeing to post real-time alerts whenever ICE officials came into a community.

Mittler said the borough would discuss the sanctuary city measure at its next meeting on Feb. 21. The public will have an opportunity to comment.

The borough would then vote on the ordinance at the following meeting.