By Mohammed Syed
On February 6, the village of South Orange joined a growing number of New Jersey municipalities in responding to President Donald J. Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. SOMA Action, a local grassroots group in South Orange and Maplewood, organized a rally to support local immigrant and Muslim communities at Spiotta Park.
With nearly 100 people in attendance, a march to the Baird Community Center followed the rally, where South Orange village leadership held a legal and personnel committee meeting for a resolution concerning the sanctuary status of the village.
The executive order, signed on January 27, was dealt a heavy blow on February 9 when a panel of three appeals judges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the government and upheld a Seattle federal district court’s ruling that blocked the implementation of the ban, as reported by The Los Angeles Times. Travelers from the seven countries with the travel ban imposed can continue to enter the United States with a valid visa.
The Court of Appeals argued, “On the one hand, the public has a powerful interest in national security and in the ability of an elected president to enact policies. And on the other, the public also has an interest in free flow of travel, in avoiding separation of families, and in freedom from discrimination.”
President Trump immediately responded on Twitter. “SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!” he wrote.
The Ninth Circuit decision will most likely be appealed by the federal government to the Supreme Court, a challenge municipalities like South Orange will face.
If passed, the village resolution will allow undocumented residents and workers to receive public services without investigation of their immigration status. The resolution will protect locals from the investigation from both the police department and the municipal administration.
Ian Grodman, an author of the Maplewood resolution and a practicing attorney, said, “This is not just to protect those who are living here. This is to protect the hundreds of visitors who visit South Orange and Maplewood every day, many of which who work in the townships; many of which might be undocumented.”
“I think it’s important for towns to understand that you have the right and obligation to resist this type of treatment,” Grodman said. “People will often not report crimes as witnesses and victims because they’re scared for their immigration status, and they feel that even they’re victims of domestic violence, if they report it, they will be deported.”
Kyle Kroll, chief of the South Orange Police Department, expressed support for the resolution. “The attorney-general guideline is that I answer to the county prosecutor. The county prosecutor answers to the attorney-general,” he said, referring to Attorney-General Law Enforcement Directive No. 2007-3, which explicitly states that law enforcement cannot investigate the immigration status of victims and witnesses.
“We take our directives from there. We don’t take directives from our new president. He doesn’t come in and tell South Orange how we’re going to dictate business,” Kroll added.
Many residents are worried about the financial impact of the sanctuary resolution, which could cost South Orange thousands in federal funding.
“It should be illegal for the federal government to say, ‘If you don’t play ball with us, and don’t do things the way we want you to, even though you’re not obligated to us, we’re going to threaten the funding that supports your communities,’” said Village President Sheena Collum.
Collum expressed concern of losing Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimbursements during times of emergency. “We have to ask, is there a possibility that if we do this, we could have a major, major disaster, and we have a president of our country, watching people suffer and perhaps die, say that FEMA is not going to support your community?” said Collum.
South Orange has community development block grants, which are administered to the village through the county. But if the county becomes a sanctuary county, the village will face consequences.
The annual average of federal funds received by the village is $631,000 dollars, and the impact on the average South Orange household would be $140 each if the federal government were to restrict grants.
Through FEMA, South Orange receives Safer Grants, which pay for the town’s fire trucks–close to $750,000. Law enforcement receives between $10,000 and $20,000 annually, distributed among bulletproof vests for cops, stationing in shops, anti-drunk driving enforcement, and the “Click it or Ticket” program.
Mary O’Mahoney, a South Orange resident and an immigrant, defended the use of “sanctuary” in the resolution. “I am a resident with a green card,” she said. “This is a very special, special place.”
Village President Collum defended the omission of the word. “It’s not an actual legal term. Say all of us use sanctuary in our title. And then he tells Congress to say any town with any resolution with the word sanctuary is going to be defunded,” she said, referring to Trump. “That creates a common nomenclature across the country for him to target people who are doing these resolutions. Whereas, our intentions can be the same, but it’s tough to say any resolution with ‘welcoming’ in it or ‘respect all rights’ in it is easily identifiable.”
Mohamed Khairullah, the Syrian-born mayor of Prospect Park, signed a similar order on Friday that protects the Passaic County borough. Khairullah’s order also omits the word “sanctuary,” but allows all of the protections of one.
“It is important to me as a person who came to the U.S as an immigrant, that we uphold our laws and values,” he said to NJ.com on Saturday. “The U.S is the land of opportunity and dreams for many people all over the world.”
A final draft of the South Orange resolution was crafted on Monday evening after the meeting. Village trustees will inform the public of their decision on the South Orange website. There will be a televised meeting at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) on February 13 at 8 p.m.