Federal immigration authorities are reviewing a request by the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office to enter a controversial program that delegates enforcing immigration law to local departments.
Under the agreement, the Sheriff’s Office would send three officers to be trained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to documents obtained by The Press of Atlantic City through a records request.
Those officers would then be authorized to investigate and process for deportation undocumented immigrants they encounter while working at the county jail.
The ICE initiative, called the 287(g) program, has drawn intense criticism from activist groups, especially after an executive order signed Jan. 25 by President Donald J. Trump called for an expansion of the program.
“287(g) has been a very controversial program since its inception,” said Chia-Chia Wang, of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice organization with an office in Newark. “Now, the president came out and wanted to extend 287(g), which is concerning to us.”
“Immigration enforcement is one of our major concerns because we don’t want people to be deported and we don’t want immigrant families to be separated,” she added. “287g is voluntary. It is not mandatory.”
At Tuesday’s freeholder meeting, about two dozen residents opposed to the 287(g) agreement showed up equipped with signs.
“I’m here because we have so many friends in Ocean City who are very scared and worried,” said Steven Fenichel, of Ocean City. “And they’re not criminals.”
Bill Causey, of West Cape May, owner of the Antique Doorknob, an antique shop, said the county’s economy will suffer if the agreement is signed.
“Think before you act because there’s a lot of them (immigrants) that work here and we need them,” Causey said. “You’re going to hurt the thing that runs our economy.”
Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said Tuesday the officers will all be corrections officers and will work exclusively in the jail.
“The corrections officers aren’t going to be stopping anybody on the street,” he said.
Currently, ICE has 287(g) agreements with 37 law-enforcement departments, including three in New Jersey: the Monmouth and Salem county sheriff’s offices and the Hudson County Department of Corrections.
A form filled out in October by Donald Lombardo, warden of the Cape May County jail, said the Sheriff’s Office wants to partner with ICE because of “law-enforcement issues” with the county’s Mexican population and “particular enforcement problems” with Russians during the summer.
The document, which was obtained by The Press, also says an estimated 30 foreign-born gang members live in the county.
Lombardo did not respond to a request for comment.
The office’s decision to express interest in the program has attracted the attention of local, state and national organizations that oppose Trump’s burgeoning immigration policies.
AFSC penned a letter to Sheriff Gary Schaffer asking him not to partner with ICE. It was co-signed by more than 40 organizations, including the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, labor groups and church groups.
A MoveOn.org petition opposing the move had more than 700 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.
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Schaffer did not respond to comment Tuesday and is out of the office until March 9, according to an automatic email reply. Executive Undersheriff John Maher referred questions to County Counsel Jim Arsenault.
Arsenault said, to his knowledge, federal officials in Washington, D.C., are still reviewing the official request to join the program.
“It’s not the type of thing that has to be presented to the freeholder board,” he said. “He (Schaffer) makes certain decisions on his own.”
That’s because Schaffer is one of the county’s three constitutional officers — sheriff, surrogate and county clerk — elected by public vote.
Thornton said he thinks the only benefit the Sheriff’s Office will receive under a potential agreement would be updated law-enforcement tools.
Arsenault said he expects Schaffer may bring a resolution to the board if immigration officials approve the request.
The board of five freeholders remained unfazed after about a dozen speakers voiced their concerns.
“They’re going to be trained in federal immigration law,” Thornton said. “I think that’s really important.”
Between 2006 and 2014, ICE identified more than 370,000 potentially deportable immigrants and trained more than 1,500 local officers through the 287(g) program, according to information contained in an email from an ICE official to Lombardo about the program.