Huge Crowd Turns Out For Immigrant Policy Discussion

March 6, 2017
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As the Human Relations Committee heard public comment inside Borough Hall Feb. 27, Isabel Santamaria, 27 of Eatontown, led chants outside supporting Red Bank as a “welcoming and inclusive community.” Photo by Jay Cook

By John Burton and Jay Cook

RED BANK – To be clear, the term “sanctuary city” is not included in the resolution narrowly adopted Monday, Feb. 27 by the borough Human Relations Committee. But that didn’t stop the motion from being controversial, bringing out protesters on both sides of the immigration debate.

Following hours of rallies in two separate towns, attended by hundreds of people, the committee conducted a two-hour hearing where many locals and others, including committee members, offered their views on the resolution proclaiming the borough as a “Welcoming and Inclusive Community,” which has been the official borough policy for more than a decade.

David Pasquale, who chairs the Human Relations Committee, said prior to the Feb. 27 meeting that the resolution was an attempt “to let our immigrant community know we’re supporting them.”

The committee’s resolution will be forwarded to Mayor Pasquale Menna and the Borough Council for its consideration and possible vote at a future council meeting, Pascale said.

As the national debate has heated up over immigration, especially concerning undocumented immigrants, Pasquale said he’s been speaking with families, especially those with children in the public schools, as well as educators and others, who have been increasingly concerned about the tone of the rhetoric in the debate and, more importantly, steps that President Donald J. Trump’s administration has begun in taking into custody undocumented immigrants for possible future deportation.

“It’s instilling fear, especially in the kids,” Pascale said last week.

The resolution doesn’t contain what has become the highly politically-charged language “sanctuary city.” And as committee member Kate Okeson explained at the meeting, there is no such legal, formal designation and by approving the resolution “there’s no instruction here,” especially pertaining to the local police and immigration enforcement.

Hundreds had gathered earlier in Middletown for a rally organized by the Bayshore Tea Party Group, a conservative activist group, with many in attendance from around the state expressing vociferous opposition to any sanctuary city designation, believing such a designation is illegal, dangerous and would result in higher taxes. Many at the Middletown rally said they were going to attend the Red Bank meeting to make their feelings known.

But before they got there, hundreds of others had already gathered at the Red Bank Municipal Complex, 90 Monmouth St., before the Human Relations Committee meeting, to show their support for the committee’s actions and for the borough’s large immigrant community.

“I can’t tell you how much it means personally to have so many come out and support the people and families in my position,” said 21-year-old borough resident Monica Urena.

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Urena is a member of the student “Dreamer” group at Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, an organization aimed at supporting minority and immigrant members of the college community. “Dreamer” has become a sort of shorthand term for those who come under the proposed federal DREAM Act, offering some protection for children of undocumented immigrants and a possible path to citizenship.

The crowd offered chants of “Si se puede” – “Yes we can” – initially used by labor organizer and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez in the early 1970s; “No hate, no fear. Immigrants are welcome here;” and “This is what democracy looks like.” This was going on as Tea Party activists and Trump supporters from the Middletown event made their way into the area, as they offered their own chants of “USA!” While some pointed discussions developed among members of both groups, the evening was peaceful, with a strong contingent of police on hand.

As the meeting inside the municipal complex proceeded, given the large crowd expected to speak, Pascale asked comments be limited to first three minutes, and then as the evening continued he shortened it to two minutes per comment. Pascale also asked that preference be given to Red Bank residents first before others spoke.

Before the public weighed in, committee member Sean Di Somma questioned this exercise, criticizing the resolution, its motives, language and ultimate effect. “Are we doing something that will serve an actual purpose?” he asked.

Di Somma went on to tell the audience, “If there is anyone in this room here illegally, this document will not help you.”

Crowds of different political persuasions filled the Red Bank Municipal Complex Monday evening over a proposed resolution labeling the municipality a “welcoming and inclusive community” in support of its large immigrant population. Photo by Jay Cook

Much of the public comments were in support of the committee’s resolution.

“I’ve been working and paying taxes since I was 16,” said Lizbeth Menez, a young borough resident, who came here from Mexico with her family. Welling up with tears and her voice quavering, she continued, “We clean your houses, we cook your food, we care for your children.

“How dare you say we don’t contribute,” she said.

Borough resident Wayne Woolley said his children attend the local public school and come in contact with the children of immigrants daily, “who are the living example of the American Dream.”

“This town’s most recent residents make Red Bank a better place,” Woolley added. “We should be honored.”

There were differing views. “I’m not saying illegal aliens don’t pay taxes,” countered Atlantic Highlands resident Shelly Kennedy. “They don’t pay enough to offset the cost,” when considering factors of health care, education and services they required, she maintained.

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She also warned that this resolution could be a violation of federal statutes.

Borough resident Anthony Young called the resolution “dangerous” and was opposed to it.

Police Chief Darren McConnell said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hasn’t arrested anyone in Red Bank in approximately two years. In his 30 years with the department, McConnell said “nobody has been routinely deported by ICE,” and there haven’t been any round-ups of those suspected of being here illegally.

As a matter of policy, Red Bank doesn’t use what available law enforcement resources it has to check on immigration status when someone is arrested for a minor offense or receives a motor vehicle violation, McConnell explained.

For more serious, indictable offenses, however, the matter is handled by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office which regularly works with federal immigration authorities, the chief added.

This, of course, could change with a directive from Washington, D.C., McConnell further noted.

Mayor Menna, who was not in attendance Monday, said later that state law directly prohibits local law enforcement from arresting or enforcing laws based upon the subject’s race or ethnicity.

“If it’s federal law let them enforce it, change it or do away with it,” Menna said. “We’re powerless to do that.”

Menna has not read the resolution’s final version, but what he knows of it, it would appear to lay out what has been policy and practice for approximately 10 years. At that point, some were lobbying the borough council to take steps to discourage day laborers, usually exclusively Hispanic, from congregating on areas of the borough’s West Side, waiting for landscaping and construction companies to come by and hire them.

“We can’t stop anybody from standing on the street corner if they’re not breaking the law,” he said. And in response, the council at that time adopted a policy through a resolution that designated Red Bank as an “inclusive city,” celebrating its ethnic diversity.

The mayor expressed some pushback against those in the media or activists who use the term “sanctuary city;” he called it “fake news,” that could harm the borough. “It hurts us in Red Bank with our merchants and residents, with visitors and real estate values,” he maintained. “And the term is not appropriate. People are throwing these things around and they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

The Human Relations Committee is an advisory body, with no enforcement ability and this resolution is largely symbolic in nature, but it has been vetted by lawyers, Pascale said.

The matter is not expected to be under consideration for the next borough council meeting on March 8, Menna said, but some time in the future, as it has to be examined by the borough attorney before being considered for a vote.

This article was first published in the March 2-9, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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