Council sets rules for police engagement
LEONIA — The council adopted a resolution Monday night declaring the borough a “welcoming community,” pledging to encourage police not to question a resident’s immigrant status except if they are charged in a criminal offense.
The move comes after executive orders from President Donald Trump that targetundocumented immigrants and seek to punish sanctuary cities by withholding federal funding. Last month, the borough first discussed the possibility of declaring sanctuary city status, spurred by a letter from a resident, and two weeks earlier agreed to vote on a “welcoming community” resolution, drafted by Mayor Judah Zeigler.
Some in the audience at the March 6 meeting urged the Borough Council to include “sanctuary city” in its language, with Rabbi Barry Schwartz of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia suggesting the council use the term as a symbolic, if not legal, gesture. The resolution adopted did not use the term.
Others, such as Marine veteran Richard Lundquist, urged council members not to declare the status, saying it would go against their oaths to uphold the Constitution and would violate federal law.
Zeigler said that while he believed the president’s executive order would not stand up in court, he was not willing to gamble Leonia’s tax dollars in a legal battle. He added that although the borough does not receive a lot of federal funding at the moment, it may need it in the future.
“We don’t want to put ourselves in that kind of harm’s way, but we should stand up and say that we cherish our diverse community, and we’re committed to making sure that all who live here are welcome, feel safe and know that this is their home,” he said.
Council President Maureen Davis said she had done research on the issue and Leonia’s own practices, as head of the police committee, in preparation for the vote. She said it is current practice by the department not to ask immigration status except in the case of an indictable offense, citing then-Attorney General Anne Milgram’s directive 2007-3, which advised police departments to ask only in that circumstance.
She said she wanted to put residents’ minds at rest that the practice will not change unless the law changes. She added that Chief Thomas Rowe has advised that the borough not participate in the president’s directive to have Immigration and Customs Enforcement deputize local law enforcement, even if grants are offered as incentive.
Before voting on the resolution, Councilman William Ziegler presented three amendments. The first was to include a paragraph saying that undocumented status is not a crime, and to substitute the term “undocumented” where the draft used “illegal”; the second, a paragraph endorsing the Leonia Police Department’s current policy of not asking for immigration status except in the case of a criminal indictment; the third, a paragraph affirming that the borough is duty-bound to cooperate in criminal investigations and to share relevant information with local, state, county and federal authorities to keep the borough safe.
“I think that a symbolic reinforcement of the welcoming resolution and the amendments that I’m going to offer — did offer — are important, because they reinforce a value statement we need to make,” he said. “I think they define and further clarify our conduct as a municipality consistent with our borough’s values and our obligations.”
Mayor Zeigler said he agreed in principle with the second suggested amendment, but recommended a change in language, as the police do not have a written policy but are following the attorney general’s directive advising the practice. Councilman Ziegler accepted this modification.
The mayor objected to the first amendment, however, as undocumented status is a violation of federal law. Ziegler said he felt it was important to distinguish thatundocumented status is not an indictable crime that would, by itself, warrant asking about undocumented status. After some discussion, Borough Attorney Brian Chewcaskie offered the distinction that while undocumented status is a violation of federal law, being of undocumented status is not a crime punishable with imprisonment, which Ziegler accepted.
Councilman Pasquale Fusco said he agreed with the mayor’s suggestions, adding that the policy of the Leonia Police Department is one of support and the department should be commended for its behavior.
The resolution passed unanimously, with Councilman Greg Makroulakis absent from the meeting.
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