MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — In a vote split along party lines, Township Committee on Monday, Aug. 19, approved a resolution supporting Cape May County Sheriff Robert Nolan’s continued cooperation with ICE.
The issue brought a taste of the current acrimonious national debate about immigration and race to the usually cordial township meeting. One Ocean City resident cited a sarcastic opinion piece by township Mayor Timothy Donohue, which had drawn criticism from the Cape May County chapter of the NAACP, while some residents at the meeting said the sheriff has a responsibility to enforce the law.
New Jersey’s Attorney General Gurbir Grewal this year imposed new requirements on arrangements between local law enforcement agencies and the federal Immigration and Custom Enforcement, known as 287(g) agreements, setting up a conflict between the shore county’s Republican-dominated government and Trenton where Democrats have the governor’s mansion and a majority in both the state Senate and Assembly.
Approved in a two-to-one vote, Middle Township Committee’s resolution supports Nolan’s decision to continue the agreement, describing it as a “force multiplier” that will better allow Nolan to keep county residents safe.
The resolution states that “Sheriff Nolan determined that the 287(g) program does not infringe upon civil rights and/or liberties and has safeguards in place to protect against racial or ethnic profiling.”
Michael Clark, who is seeking reelection and is the only Democrat on the three-member governing body, opposed the measure. Reading from a prepared statement, he said, “I cannot support this resolution. I believe it’s premature at best.”
Clark said there is no question whether Nolan is committed to protecting public safety. But he cited a requirement imposed by the Attorney General’s Office that law enforcement organizations justify their decision to enter agreements with ICE.
“The issue is whether the county is deliberately defying the state attorney general’s directive that no ICE agreements be renewed without his consent. The AG has taken the position that the county ICE renewal deliberately violates the spirit, if not the letter of the AG’s directive,” Clark said.
The state office had threatened to issue a directive early this month prohibiting Cape May County officers from exercising their law enforcement authority in connection with the agreement. County officials have said the sheriff has been granted an extension, but that is rapidly running out.
“We have no idea what the county has submitted to the AG, and no idea how the AG will react to it,” Clark said. “What we do know however, is that the county and the AG could end up in a legal battle in court.”
He wants to at least wait until that fight plays out.
“Otherwise, the township runs the risk of endorsing an illegal action by the county. As your committeeman, I should not put the township in this position,” he said.
Several people turned out to urge Township Committee to vote against the measure.
Among them was Steven Fenichel of Ocean City, who has campaigned against the 287(g) agreement since former Sheriff Gary Schaffer signed the first agreement in 2017.
“Sheriff Nolan might be the highest law enforcement officer in our county, but the attorney general is the highest law enforcement official in the state of New Jersey,” Fenichel said. Speaking just after the opening of the meeting at which those attending recited the Pledge of Allegiance, he added, “In a way, this ICE issue sort of makes a mockery of the closing words that we all just stated: ‘With liberty and justice for all.’ I believe this is rendered meaningless by this 287(g).”
Other speakers also criticized the resolution, some citing Grewal’s assertion that the ICE agreements damage trust in law enforcement on the part of immigrant communities and may make some people less inclined to cooperate with police. However, some praised the resolution.
“He’s saying ‘obey the law,’ but he doesn’t consider the federal law,” said Ed Dillio, of Cape May Court House. “I believe ICE and the sheriff should work together to get rid of criminal illegal aliens. They’re not immigrants. They’re illegally here. I’m in support of this.”
He said he is in favor of immigration, saying that his father came to United States from Italy at the age of 9.
“State law does not supersede federal law. Federal law says that if you cross our borders without permission, you do not belong here. There is a system set up for immigration,” said Dillio.
Since the first three-year agreement, county officials said it only applies to Sheriff’s Department officers in the Cape May County jail, arguing that because of bail reform, only those who have been charged with a serious offense would come into contact with the officers while being processed at the jail.
Later in the meeting, Fenichel criticized Donohue and his opinion piece, in which the mayor mocked the idea that all supporters of President Trump are white supremacists.
“All I can say is you’re judged by your actions,” he said, stating that by supporting the ICE agreement, Donohue supported policies that resulted in children separated from their parents and put into cages. Fenichel cited Donohue’s example of supporting local Republican candidates who are black.
“Befriending two politicians who you tend to agree with does not prove a damned thing. Maybe you were being funny about that as well,” Fenichel said. “It’s only your actions that will let the people know who you are.”
“And I stand by them. Thank you,” replied Donohue. “I love being judged by people who know nothing about me.”
He said the opinion piece was sarcastic, “and that’s how I react to absurdity.”
Near the close of the lengthy meeting, the two men went back and forth on the issue. Donohue said his support of the two candidates deviated from the accepted narrative.
“So, do you believe that anyone who supports Donald Trump for any reason is a racist?” asked Donohue.
“I believe anyone that goes along with 287(g) has some issues of possibly being a white nationalist looking to scare a very vulnerable group. And we’re going into something you don’t have a clue about. I don’t know much about you, but you don’t know anything about 287(g),” Fenichel replied.