After much debate among council members, Highland Park Borough Council voted in favor of designating the municipality an”an inclusive community” at the council meeting on May 2, 2017.
The adoption of the resolution came after months of work on the part of the mayor and council and the Immigration and Refugee Task Force. Councilman Matt Hersh, chair of the task force, spearheaded the effort, as he advocated for support of the resolution and led a public forum on immigration and refugee matters on March 23, 2017. (Video of the forum can be seen here and here.)
Prior to the vote on the resolution, the mayor and council heard further input from residents of Highland Park. While most of the people who lined up to speak were in favor of the resolution,, that support carried the weight of their concerns about the language and scope of the proposed document.
“I’m a little puzzled by what happened to this this resolution, both in terms of the title and the substance,” said David Hughes, a professor at Rutgers University, who detailed his vexation with the evolution of the resolution. “I thought we were supposed to be a ‘sanctuary city’… but then it became ‘fair and welcome’, and now it’s… about ‘upholding respect and protection for historically discriminated populations’. I don’t know what a historically discriminated population is. That sounds to me like Irish and Italian Americans who are no longer discriminated against, by and large, but we’re talking about people currently discriminated against, and worse, people may be banished from this country. So I would ask the council to reconsider and come up with something decipherable.”
Quick to defend the measure was Mayor Brill Mittler saying, “The purpose of this document is to make life better for all our residents, particularly those that are immigrants and refugees, and new residents of this community.”
Adding to the mayor’s statement, Councilman Hersh offered a rebuttal. “I’m sorry that you feel this is a lifeless document, but I guarantee you in 10 years, five years, you’ll think differently. You’ll think differently because I, and a lot of people in this room, who are sitting right next to you, and whether you participate or not, will make sure that this document takes life.”
“I find the final draft to be extremely disappointing,” said Pastor Seth Kaper-Dale, Green Party gubernatorial candidate and advocate for immigration and refugee rights. “I’m not worried about five or 10 years from now and I don’t need anyone to tell me how I should feel five or 10 years from now. I’m worried about five days from now.”
“You have an opportunity here to have much better stuff than what’s in this document. I’m still saying vote for the document, but I hope that beyond the document you can do something that looks like real support for immigrants,” continued Pastor Kaper-Dale.
“I want to thank the council and Councilman Hersh for all the work you put into it. It was important for me to see that we wouldn’t be participating in 287(g) and implementing that,” said Sheela Sekhar, another Highland Park resident offering her thoughts on the resolution. “I would like to see something with a little more teeth, or at least something more fluid in the case of another executive order coming to pass and affecting our residents. But in the instance for today, if we had to vote for anything, I urge you all to vote yes.”
When asked about whether the Highland Park Police Department will participate in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) action, or if they will notify people of ICE action, Councilwoman Elsie Foster-Dublin replied saying, “Approximately 10 years ago, we passed a resolution saying our police department will not act as ICE agents. They will not be doing the bidding of ICE. We argued to protect all residents of Highland Park. If we’ve been doing this for the past decade, there’s no way we’re going to turn our backs now.”
Hearing the concerns of the attendees at the council meeting, specifically about “sharpening language” in the resolution and “giving it some teeth,” Mayor Brill Mittler responded: “When we vote on a resolution, that doesn’t mean we have to ignore it afterwards. I think it’s important for us to move on a statement that addresses what we, for the most part, feel is very important for our community. Once a document is voted on, that doesn’t mean it can’t be amended or reworked.”
When it came time for the vote on adopting the Inclusive Community resolution, along with 29 other items on the consent agenda, it appeared that the voice of the people was heard. Councilman Josh Fine, the first in the roll call vote, moved to delay the vote on the resolution in order for the council to process the concerns of Highland Park’s residents and make any necessary changes.
“I do support the resolution, but I have heard a number of residents get up here tonight and basically say to us, and I do agree with them, that this is the first meeting since they had an opportunity to view the resolution and to actually make some public comment. I don’t think it would hurt the council to continue to take a look at the resolution as-is, and bring it up for a vote at our May 16th meeting.”
Councilwoman Foster-Dublin seconded Councilman Fine’s motion. “We have heard a number of persons with various concerns tonight and that they want us to take a closer look. And although I’m in full support, and I would like to see us move forward, I would also like an opportunity for us to go back and look at what was said to see if what was said can be implemented.”
“I see no reason why we can’t vote on it tonight and continue to work on it just so that the aim of the mission, which is to protect our residents, gets put on the record,” said Mayor Brill Mittler, urging Councilman Fine to consider withdrawing his motion.
Councilman Fine declined to withdraw his motion, citing his two years on council and stating that it often takes several council meetings to get amendments on the agenda. “All I’m asking for with this motion, and again I do support this resolution, I just feel that we should give it one more meeting.”
“I think we need to be decisive and take action tonight,” said Councilman Hersh, defending the resolution and urging the council to adopt it at the May 2nd meeting. “This is a reality for our communities. This is something that we have to face immediately, but it can’t be done by making a powerful admonition of the Trump administration. Our role is to establish institutional policy that prevents these things from happening, no matter who’s in charge. That’s why I think it’s important that we act today.”
“As an immigrant myself, I know how important this document is for all of us. I know I want to see all that’s done that is going to protect the rights of immigrants and the marginalized community. I’m an immigrant, I’m a woman, and I’m black,” said Councilwoman Foster-Dublin, prefacing her vote. “To properly address some of the concerns, I think we can wait two more weeks to have it done.”
“There’s a time to act, and there’s a time to talk. There comes a time when the citizens and the council deserve action,” stated Councilman Phil George. “It may not be perfect, but it runs the risk of backsliding, and we’re backsliding at the federal level. And those that do not learn from history, repeat it. I vote ‘no’ to table the resolution.”
The motion to delay the adoption of the resolution was put to a vote with Councilpersons Fine, Foster-Dublin, and Kim voting in its favor, while Councilpersons George, Hersh, and Welkovitz voted against postponing any longer. This tie resulted in history being made as Mayor Brill Mittler was placed in the position of casting the deciding vote.
“This is democracy, folks!” said Mayor Brill Mittler before casting her vote against tabling the resolution and voting at a later date. The council, though divided on whether to make a decision at the May 2nd meeting, returned to the original vote to adopt the 30 resolutions. All voted yes, save for Councilwoman Foster-Dublin, who maintained her stance that the council and task force should consider making revisions based on public opinion and vote to adopt the resolution at the May 16th meeting.
Several provisions within the Incluive Communty document that look to the future for action on matters affecting immigrants, refugees, and other marginalized and disenfranchised people residing in Highland Park. Notable among these provisions are the following:
- The Municipal ID program will provide all Highland Park residents 14 years of age and older a government-issued ID regardless of documented status, housing status, gender identity, disability, or past criminal convictions;
- The Immigration and Refugee Task Force will become an advisory board for the borough and offer recommendations on policy matters concerning immigrants and refugees, thereby “making the task force a more permanent group,” according to Mayor Brill Mittler;
- The mayor and council endorse the creation of an independent non-profit which will work with immigrants and refugees, regardless of visa status, to offer services such as English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, legal guidance, and information regarding citizenship;
- The mayor and council look to establish “clear and transparent protocols” regarding the certification and processing of “U visas”, or U nonimmigrant status, which offer certain protections for immigrants who are the victims of crime, or those who aid law enforcement in the investigation of a crime.
- The borough will not volunteer or participate in any 287(g) agreements with the federal government. The 287(g) program allows state and/or local law enforcement to volunteer to aid Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the arrest and detention of “criminal aliens”. As of May 2, 2017, four counties in New Jersey (Cape May, Hudson, Monmouth, and Salem counties) participate in this program.