A proposal to make Montclair a sanctuary city for immigrants was not on the Montclair Township council’s agenda for its February 7 meeting, but supporters of the initiative came out in droves, to make sure their voices heard on the issue. Though the meeting was a conference meeting, not a regularly televised one, Mayor Robert Jackson and the council held the meeting in the council chambers in anticipation of the overflow of residents they expected. Even that wasn’t enough.
One resident after another got up to voice support for Montclair becoming a sanctuary city, a municipality that has adopted a policy of protecting unauthorized immigrants. President Donald Trump’s executive order barring citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries has sparked similar calls for such a status in various municipalities, which the White House has threatened to withhold federal funds from.
Resident Serge Demefack, an immigrant himself and an immigrant-rights activist, said the township had to be more proactive in standing up to anti-immigrant policies. Another resident, Rosa Neel, presented herself as an example of how immigrants add value to America, noting that she was born to a Peruvian mother but was mostly raised in Peru and returned to the United States at the age of 10, learning English, graduating from college, and becoming a lawyer thereafter. She was quick to note how many immigrants in Montclair were doctors, lawyers, students and entrepreneurs as well as child care providers, office cleaners, and restaurant workers.
The Reverend Ann Ralosky of First Congregational Church took the opportunity to read a statement supporting Montclair as a sanctuary city on behalf of the Montclair Clergy Association. “The Montclair Clergy Association stands in solidarity in supporting the initiative to have Montclair designated as a sanctuary city, joining hundreds of other cities, large and small across our great country. It’s at the core of every faith tradition that the vulnerable and disenfranchised be protected and provided for, especially in these perilous and unstable times. We believe that the enduring values of compassion and inclusion, historically exhibited by the Montclair community, will be most meaningfully manifested by such an action. This is the community we aspire to be.”
Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo, who attended as a resident and left early due to illness, reminded the council that Italian-Americans like his own family had been unwanted like Latin American and Islamic immigrants are today, and he was quick to note the new sister-city relationship with the Italian town of Aquilonia reflected Montclair’s commitment to welcoming diverse cultures. Another Italian-American resident, lawyer Joseph Fortunato, said he was motivated by his own work as a lawyer at Newark Airport, having volunteered to help people coming into the country along with several other attorneys. He said he helped an Iranian-British national who had been detained for five hours and whose luggage was searched before she was finally let in. He said it was “critically important” that Montclair continue to be diverse and inclusive. “We have to take leadership once again in order to do that by making Montclair a sanctuary city,” he said.
Not everyone agreed with the sanctuary-city idea. Resident John Van Wagner, citing the illegal statuses of many immigrants, said he knew a Muslim immigrant from Afghanistan who voted for Trump because he had entered the country legally and had become a citizen through the proper channels, and he regarded illegal immigrants as being disrespectful to the rule of law. Van Wagner concurred that the rule of law should be followed.
The council was supportive of the pro-sanctuary opinions expressed, however. Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville thanked everyone for sharing their sentiments and said she stood with them. She noted that she had introduced a sanctuary city resolution earlier, and that she and the rest of the council had been doing research to write a resolution with help from Township Attorney Ira Karasick, who recently shared with the council a draft that could pass muster legally. Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller stated that laws aren’t always right, and he called for standing up to the Trump administration, because doing the right thing is more important.
Mayor Jackson handled the law enforcement question, responding to resident Jeffrey Jacobson’s question as to whether the police have to inquire about the immigration status of a person who needs help and if there are circumstances when a Montclair police officer has to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The mayor said not one person has ever been referred to ICE and no person has ever been asked for his immigration status. Police officers are only obliged to ask, he said, if there is an arrest for drunk driving or for an indictable offense. The police, Mayor Jackson said, are usually the first people residents go to for help, and he cited Officer Garth Guthrie’s quiet philanthropy in giving necessary items such as food and clothing to people in need. Karasick added that officers don’t investigate the immigration statuses of a crime victim, witness, or a person seeking help from the police per regulations from the Attorney General.
The council passed seven resolutions after public comment, including one scheduled for consideration at the February 21 that authorizes the execution of a professional services agreement with H2M Associates, LLC for professional services connected with off-site groundwater investigation at 399 Orange Road. Dr. Baskerville had asked that it be voted on immediately instead of later, and the council did so.
Maintaining Open Space at Future Seymour Street Plaza
A resolution approving and authorizing an agreement governing use and access of the future plaza slated for Seymour Street aroused concern from Councilor Spiller, who asked about how scheduled events at the plaza would be run. Karasick said events could be scheduled by the township or the owners of the surrounding property. The township would provide the owners with an annual schedule of events it intends to hold, and then it would get those days; any other events would require three days’ notice to the owners, and any events not previously scheduled would require three days’ notice to the township. Each side would work with the other over a calendar, and the agreement stresses that the public always has access to the plaza. Councilor Spiller was concern that free time on the plazas between events could be filled and lead to too many events and not enough open time. Councilor Spiller proposed an amendment that plaza use would be jointly discussed with the owners in a year-end review, with a final list of the number of events being subject to township approval. It was so amended and passed.
Also, Dr. Baskerville was concerned about a resolution amending the temporary 2017 budget, saying there should be hearings for such items and the council should not blindly approve amendments. Acting Township Manager Tim Stafford explained that Chief Financial Officer Padmaja Rao had requested 50 percent of the 2016 operating budget to get through the temporary phase. In general discussion, Dr. Baskerville also asked Karasick for an update on hiring an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance officer, and he said that the township has had no luck in finding a qualified applicant. Dr. Baskerville suggested a shared-service arrangement with the school district to have one common ADA officer.
— Sean M. Spiller (@SeanMSpiller) February 8, 2017