ELIZABETH -- The mayor of Elizabeth, where almost half the population is foreign-born, said he won't give the municipality a "sanctuary city" designation despite concerns of immigration advocates.
Mayor J. Christian Bollwage said this week he believes the "sanctuary" phrasing would put a target on the back of unauthorized immigrants.
"If you become a 'sanctuary city,' you're kind of encouraging the national officials (and saying), 'Come look at us. Here's where the people are,'" he said.
The term "sanctuary city" has no official definition under U.S. law, but it usually means local police will decline to help the federal government find and detain unauthorized immigrants.
President Donald Trump has vowed to cut federal funds to cities that refuse to work with immigration officials.
In place of a sanctuary designation in Elizabeth, Bollwage said any outside law enforcement seeking the police department's help would have to bring a warrant to police headquarters and show it to a commanding officer. The officers would then decide what, if any, support to give.
Police will always help if federal officials are looking for a person suspected of a crime, but the city can't afford for officers to constantly be aiding other organizations in finding Elizabeth residents, Bollwage said.
"We don't have the time or the resources to take away from Elizabeth policemen and women protecting the citizens of Elizabeth to become an escort service for another agency," he said.
Elizabeth currently lacks a police chief, so one of the department's two deputy chiefs could review a warrant from federal officials, city spokeswoman Kelly Martins said.
She said the change in protocol will not be put into writing as an official city policy.
The city previously did not have a specific policy to govern interactions between police and federal authorities. Bollwage said Elizabeth had not dealt with Immigration and Customs Enforcement until recently, and other federal agencies did not usually request help from local law enforcement.
Although the change in protocol likely will mean less collaboration between Elizabeth police and immigration officials, local immigration leaders this week said the policy change does not go far enough to protect unauthorized immigrants from deportation.
Chia-Chia Wang, director of the Immigrant Rights Program at the American Friends Service Committee, said although calling a city a "sanctuary" might alert officials to the presence of unauthorized immigrants, authorities could also determine where those immigrants are likely to live from census data showing what percentage of a population is foreign-born.
"I think it sounds like an excuse for not doing a formal policy," she said.
Wang said it remains unclear exactly what funding the federal government could legally withhold from "sanctuary cities."
She also said Elizabeth should put its new policy about police interactions with ICE officials into writing so city employees and residents could better understand it.
Sara Cullinane, state director of the immigration advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey, said local law enforcement should honor only judicial warrants from ICE, and not administrative warrants.
Administrative warrants are created internally by ICE, while judicial warrants are issued by judges.
"The City of Elizabeth being willing to entertain administrative warrants really puts immigrants at risk," Cullinane said. "Most major cities have better policies than this."
Elizabeth's change in policy follows what Bollwage said was an attempt by federal ICE officials last week to serve an administrative warrant for an arrest in the city.
ICE officers on Feb. 16 knocked on a South Broad Street door, but people inside refused to answer when they saw who it was, Bollwage said. He said the officials then called Elizabeth police for help, and two officers went to the location and knocked.
The people inside opened the door for the Elizabeth officers, but ICE officials could not serve the warrant because the woman they were looking for was not there, Bollwage said.
ICE spokesman Alvin Phillips would confirm only that the agency had not recently arrested anyone in Union County, but he said officers were "working day and night" to fulfill the mission set by Trump's executive order on immigration.
Marisa Iati may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Iati or on Facebook here. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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