On March 14th at 7 p.m. at the Senior Center, Highland Park residents will continue to voice their opinions about a Highland Park Borough Council proposal to introduce a resolution regarding municipal policies involving Highland Park’s immigrant and refugee population. The purpose of such a resolution would be to clarify and formalize “current existing practices here in Highland Park. It would require no additional public expenditures…and could protect us from adopting practices that might impose unfunded mandates,” said Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler.
Council members have been working with the borough’s Immigration and Refugee Task Force to finalize the wording of the resolution – the spirit of which is to address the well being of all its citizens regardless of immigration status. Then the draft resolution will go through a final review by Municipal Attorney Ed Schmierer.
“The essence of the resolution is an affirmation of the borough’s existing practices when it comes to enforcement. It is also intended to serve as a policy document that establishes clear goals and policies moving forward, like the launch of our Highland Park Municipal ID for those without state-issued identification, namely a driver’s license,” added Councilman Matthew Hersh, who serves as chair of the Immigration and Refugee Task Force.
At Highland Park Borough Council’s Feb. 21st meeting, Highland Park Police Chief Stephen Rizco said police department would continue its existing policy of inquiring about one’s immigration status only if someone is arrested for certain series indictable crimes or for a drunk driving arrest. “Under those conditions, we ask immigration status. Otherwise we are not permitted to ask, nor are we interested in immigration status.”
That policy does not conflict with federal immigration law, Mayor Brill Mittler said, and is in line with an existing directive from the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General.
The Borough’s Municipal ID program, which will likely launch in the spring, has been over a year in the making and received input by the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. The ID would be available for residents 14 years of age and older, will be accepted by all municipal agencies, will aid in crime reporting, can be used as a library card, and will offer merchant incentives at businesses downtown.
The borough meeting chamber on the night of Feb. 21st was filled to capacity with citizens, eager to let their voices be heard and to hear the opinions of others. The diverse group comprised immigrants, seniors, local business owners, Rutgers University faculty, activists, and politicians, including U. S. Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. and Green Party Gubernatorial Candidate, and Highland Park resident, Pastor Seth Kaper-Dale.
Congressman Pallone offered his opinion on the Trump administration’s executive orders and U.S. Department of Homeland Security directive. “I am very much opposed to the Trump administration’s executive orders and policies through the Department of Homeland Security…. “My own view is that we have 11 or 12 [million] undocumented immigrants here in the country and that the smartest thing, the practical thing, is to put them on a pathway to citizenship.”
“As far as a sanctuary city, no one really knows what that means, in my opinion,” Congressman Pallone later added. “There is no definition of what a ‘sanctuary’ city is, or even what a ‘fair and welcoming’ city is. But generally speaking, it is a city that will not cooperate on a voluntary basis with the federal authorities.”
Approaching the microphone after patiently waiting with other Highland Park citizens, Highland Park Reformed Church Co-Pastor Seth Kaper-Dale put forth his thoughts on the resolution. “I do believe that this resolution should be called ‘sanctuary city’. Our congregation is committed to offering physical sanctuary again, and we hope that we can be a church offering that in a space where we have the blessing of the town. Our town has a chance to engage in the theatrics of love, whether that’s something that should happen at a church or at a borough, can be debated. But at this point, we’re all citizens in this mess. And I believe that through some of these specific things with teeth in our sanctuary resolution, we might actually guide the nation in what sanctuary cities look like.”
A majority of the people who spoke were in favor of the resolution; they shared stories of their immigration experiences and urged the council to use “extreme language” in the resolution in order to refute the “president’s extreme action.”
“I’d like to speak to the council to urge you to adopt the wording ‘sanctuary city’ in the resolution,” offered one resident. “Symbolism is very important. It will send a very powerful message to our undocumented residents that the town stands behind them and will protect them and defend them as much as the town possibly can.”
There were several residents, however, who voiced concerns about how the resolution might negatively impact the quality of life in Highland Park. Particular issues raised were related to: public safety; cost to the town and subsequent tax increases; emergency services; quality of education; declining property values; loss of Federal funding; and an influx of undocumented immigrants.