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Ocean County Reiterates Its Non-‘Sanctuary’ Status

The Ocean County Justice Complex, Toms River, N.J. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

The Ocean County Justice Complex, Toms River, N.J. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Four months after Shorebeat first reported that the Ocean County Jail’s policy toward illegal immigrants is to comply with detainer orders from the federal government, the county is still receiving pushback from residents who have seen erroneous reports elsewhere – including Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s own website – that the county provides sanctuary for criminal aliens who are arrested for various offenses.

The county’s efforts to shake the designation, based on a now-defunct policy developed by former jail warden Theodore J. Hutler on the advice of county counsel Jack Sahradnik, come as county residents called to protest to non-existent policy and the administration of President Donald Trump is formally moving to deny federal funding to jurisdictions that do not honor ICE detainer requests.

The county’s revised policy, drawn up in 2015 by then newly-appointed Warden Sandra J. Mueller, replaced a policy from a year earlier that earned Ocean County semi-sanctuary status in a report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union’s New Jersey chapter. That policy outlined specific crimes for which Ocean County would fulfill detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Suspects charged with offenses that were considered a “danger to the person or the community,” such as murder, vehicular homicide, aggravated assault and various sex crimes, would be held for 48 hours on the detainer.

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A federal appeals court in 2014 ruled that detainers are merely requests rather than orders to local law enforcement, essentially making it optional for a local agency to honor them.

After that ruling was handed down, Sahradnik helped former warden Hutler promulgate a county policy on honoring the detainers, which contained the list of offenses. Mueller, in 2015, replaced the policy with a new one which more broadly states that illegal immigrants charged with any first, second or third degree crime, or any inmate whose offense makes him or her a “removable alien” should prompt jail employees to honor the detainer.

The county also welcomes an ICE employee to be permanently stationed at the jail to determine the identities of inmates and whether they are removable aliens.

“We are very lucky to have an ICE officer at the jail full time,” said Mueller, during an interview with Shorebeat in Dec. 2016. “Their responsibility is to identify the inmates who fall under the priority enforcement program, make sure they have ICE detainers, and if they need to be transported to a detention facility, they make that happen.”

On March 30, an ICE official confirmed the county was complying with its detainer efforts in a letter to Mueller.

“I want to thank you again for the continued cooperation between the Ocean County Department of Corrections and ICE … I have submitted your updated policy regarding Immigration Detainers dated July 28, 2015 to the department responsible for Declined Detainer Outcome Report and have explained that Ocean County works very closely and cooperatively with ICE,” the letter stated.

“We are not a sanctuary county, nor has Ocean County ever had an interest in being a sanctuary county,” said Ocean County Freeholder Jack Kelly, Director of Law and Public Safety. “We have been actively working to correct the record and have Ocean County’s name removed from whatever lists are out there calling us a sanctuary county.”

According to ICE, under the Priority Enforcement Program, ICE “will seek the transfer of a removable individual when that individual has been convicted of an offense listed under the [Department of Homeland Security] civil immigration enforcement priorities, has intentionally participated in an organized criminal gang to further the illegal activity of the gang, or poses a danger to national security.”

Mueller said ICE determines which inmates fall under the program and should be detained, and the county fulfills all requests.

“I worked with ICE to do a policy to cooperate with their priority enforcement program,” said Mueller.

So-called sanctuary cities and counties – which exercise their perceived legal right to ignore some or all ICE detainer requests – have drawn scrutiny following the recent election of Donald J. Trump as president, who campaigned heavily on immigration issues. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said he is moving to deny federal aid to cities, counties and states that adopt sanctuary policies.

The debate over sanctuary cities ratcheted up after the high-profile 2015 murder of Kate Steinle in San Francisco – a sanctuary city which ignored a detainer request for her alleged killer – in part leading the U.S. House of Representatives to approve a bill that would have imposed penalties on sanctuary jurisdictions. Democrats in the U.S. Senate blocked the legislation from making it to President Barack Obama’s desk.

Leading the charge in favor of sanctuary policies has been the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Rather than taking a punitive approach to local law enforcement agencies that are working hard to balance their duties to uphold the Constitution and to keep their communities safe, the Senate should end DHS’s unconstitutional detainer practices, or fix the constitutional deficiencies by requiring judicial warrants for all detainer requests,” the organization said in a statement issued in July.

Despite the revisions made by the County in cooperation with ICE, starting in the fall of 2015, the County began being identified on certain web sites as a Sanctuary City, even though its 2015 inmate policy had been developed in conjunction with ICE.

“Clearly we work cooperatively with ICE,” Kelly said. “We will continue to reach out to those agencies that list us incorrectly and also let them know we are not on the ICE declined detainer outcome report.”