CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — You could call it the case of the missing meeting.
In an Aug. 16 letter to Veronica Allende, the director of the Division of Criminal Justice for the state of New Jersey, Cape May County Sheriff Robert Nolan mentioned plans to host a public forum on a controversial agreement between his office and Immigration and Custom Enforcement at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17.
The letter said the meeting would take place in Cape May Court House, but no venue was given. The most likely spot would have been the meeting room of the county Board of Freeholders in the county administration building in the Crest Haven complex.
The meeting was not advertised and was not mentioned on the Sheriff’s Department website or on listings of coming events prepared by the county. In fact, the only mention of the meeting appears to be in Nolan’s letter.
Apparently, a number of people had received copies of the letter through requests under the Open Public Meetings Act, including representatives of The Press of Atlantic City.
“A lot of people OPRAed that,” Nolan said.
In an interview, he said the meeting was not advertised because it was not going to happen. Nolan said he planned to begin advertising the meeting about two weeks before it was scheduled, but was told on Sept. 4 by Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland that he was told by the state Attorney General’s Office it would not be necessary.
Nolan’s predecessor, Sheriff Gary Schaffer, signed the first agreement with ICE in 2016. Known as a 287(g) agreement, it included training for three officers stationed at the county jail and allowed those officers to fulfill some functions of ICE.
Some residents immediately opposed the agreement, arguing that it drove a wedge between immigrant communities and local law enforcement. Schaffer argued at the time that it only applied to sheriff’s officers at the county jail, which meant they would only come in contact with individuals who had been accused of a crime.
The agreement also means the county may hold someone at the request of ICE after that person has been scheduled to be released. County officials have said that has kept at least one violent offender from being released from county jail.
When the three-year agreement expired after Nolan was elected sheriff, he renewed it without fanfare in February. But in the meantime, there had been a change in state government with the election of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.
His appointment for Attorney General, Gubir Grewal, has been working to curtail the 287(g) agreements, including with a directive in November limiting local assistance to ICE and a further notice in April, after Nolan renewed Cape May County’s agreement.
In July, Allende gave notice that Cape May County failed to meet the requirements under the new “Immigrant Trust Directive” to renew its agreement with ICE, which included a statement from the sheriff justifying the agreement, reports on the assistance given to ICE and a summary of the public’s view, based on at least one public forum held in Cape May County. The county was given an extension of the deadline to meet the requirements.
Nolan said this week that he has filed extensive documentation with the attorney general’s office, and is awaiting word on a decision. He said he has implanted new, stricter standard operating procedures for cooperation with ICE.
“I hope I was able to satisfy the concerns and we’ll be able to continue our 287(g) program,” Nolan said.
In his Aug. 16 letter to Allende, he said the sheriff’s office has integrated the state’s Immigrant Trust directive with the 287(g) program “in an effort to achieve the goal of strengthening trust between New Jersey’s law enforcement officers and the state’s diverse immigrant communities.”
Sutherland was not immediately available on Tuesday to confirm that he told Nolan the meeting was not necessary. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said the letter and supplemental information sent by the Cape May County sheriff are under review. In an email Sept. 18, spokesman Peter Aseltine said he would have no comment on how long that review would take. He did not respond to a question whether the public meeting was not required.
Several members of the public have criticized the agreement, but Cape May County has also seen strong support. In July, members Cape May County’s governing body unanimously backed the agreement, and Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton described it as an important tool to keep county residents and visitors safe.
In August, Middle Township Committee also approved a resolution supporting the continuation of the agreement, with one committeeman voting no. Several area residents attended the meeting criticized the agreement, while some Middle Township residents spoke in support.
A report from Cape May County’s Sheriff’s Department, filed with the state attorney general, lists five instances in which the 287(g) program was invoked at the county jail in 2018 and 2019, including the once previously cited in which a Mexican citizen was accused of aggravated sexual assault of a minor and other crimes. That took place on Jan. 12.
Other instances involved someone from Jamaica on May 4, who was charged with domestic violence-simple assault, a Mexican citizen on July 23, 2018, charged with possession of marijuana, unlawful possession of a handgun and other charges, another Mexican on Sept. 4 of that year, arrested in Wildwood on charges of domestic violence and a citizen of Kosovo, charged with aggravated assault and possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes, in an 287(g) report dated Oct. 16, 2018.