Town residents look on during the Feb. 21 Montclair Township Council meeting, in which the council approved a resolution to declare the township a “welcoming community” for immigrants. LINDA MOSS/ STAFF

Staff Writer

Before a packed audience, and in a compromise opposed by some residents, the Township Council on Tuesday night voted to declare the municipality a “welcoming” community, rather than a sanctuary, for immigrants.

By a 4-2 vote, Montclair joined a number of cities and jurisdictions across the country that have opted to become “welcoming” rather than so-called sanctuary cities, including Dallas County, Texas; Boise, Idaho; Seattle and Madison, N.J.

President Donald Trump has issued two executive orders to withhold federal funds from sanctuary venues, jurisdictions where officials won’t permit local resources to enforce federal immigration laws ‑ a factor that weighed heavily in the township’s decision not go that route.

The Montclair vote came after an overflow crowd of around 200 people crammed into the Municipal Council Chambers, some carrying placards, to speak for and against the action. Roughly 20 people addressed the council before it voted, with some claiming that the resolution had no teeth, and that it didn’t go far enough to protect township immigrants or thwart local police from cooperating with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities.

“This is not just a legal document. This is about a sense of what is important and right and decent in the minds of the people of this town,” resident Joe Fine told the council, saying that the proposal didn’t go far enough. “Essentially, one thing this resolution doesn’t say is that we are a sanctuary town.”

John Gutierrez agreed, saying, “The problem is the practical impact of this resolution is nil … You cannot sit here and tell me that the best that Montclair can do is to say we will continue to do what we have done. It is insufficient.”

Others argued that the resolution was unnecessary, that it combatted an issue where the municipality has no jurisdiction, or went too far.

Some, such as Ryan Smyth, said that the township should not publicly proclaim that it is a sanctuary willing to disobey federal law to safeguard undocumented immigrants. He asked the council not to let the voices of the crowded audience speak for Montclair’s 40,000-plus residents.

“This resolution is a ‘We-Hate-Donald-Trump’ resolution,” said Roland Straten, who accused township residents of being “biased” and non-inclusive to those who don’t share their “left-leaning opinions.”

Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville reads the “welcoming community” resolution at the Feb. 21 meeting. LINDA MOSS/STAFF

In the end, voting in favor of the proposal were Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renée Baskerville, who spearheaded the resolution, Mayor Robert Jackson, At-Large Councilman Bob Russo and Third Ward Councilman Sean Spiller. Opposing it were Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and Second Ward Councilwoman Robin Schlager. At-Large Councilman Rich McMahon was not present.

Essentially, the designation of Montclair as a “welcoming” community was a compromise that avoided both naming the town a sanctuary city – and therefore risking the forfeiting of federal funds – or not taking any stand on immigrant rights at all. Some residents urged a tougher resolution, especially in light of the release of documents earlier in the day from the Department of Homeland Security, which Gutierrez said “signals a watershed moment in immigration enforcement.”

The Center for Immigration Studies has identified 300 jurisidictions as sanctuary cities, venues that limit enforcement of federal immigration laws. In New Jersey, they include Newark, Jersey City and Camden.

Montclair’s resolution said that the township’s policy “shall be to welcome and treat all persons entering or living in our community with the same respect, fairness, and dignity, and to continue providing municipal services and enforcing the law on an equal basis to all people, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or nation of origin or descent, or of federal immigration status.”

The township “opposes any government registry based on religion or national origin,” according to the resolution.

It also says that the municipality seeks to “reaffirm and protect the tradition of welcoming and embracing immigrants who chose to leave their homes for a better life,” and “regardless of our own ethnic, religious or national background, political affiliation or persuasion, we agree and affirm that the decent, respectful and dignified treatment of all people regardless of their immigration status is a moral imperative and a basic human right.”

Baskerville told residents that she and the council had listened and taken into account their input, as well as seeking legal advice on the matter. She said there are several definitions of “sanctuary” as it relates to undocumented immigrants, including cities or jurisdictions who “willingly” violate federal law to shield them. That designation would not win four votes from the council, according to Baskerville.

“What we have here is something I feel very comfortable with,” Baskerville said, adding that this particular resolution would win passage by the council.

Russo, in part citing a book by John F. Kennedy titled “A Nation of Immigrants,” noted that he was of Italian descent and that many Italian immigrants, even when they entered America legally, were subject to discrimination and described as illegals.

“We have a tradition in this country that we’re against people who come here and we’re against some of the things that really made this country great,” Russo said. “This country … should be a sanctuary for everybody. … [The resolution] encompasses the best of what we could put together and agree upon and protect the town at the same time for fighting for what we see as right.”

In response to Straten’s remarks, Russo said that the resolution wasn’t anti-Trump. “Trump is anti-us as far as I am concerned,” Russo said.

Spiller described the welcoming resolution as an opportunity “to speak up for what’s right.”

In explaining his opposition to it, Hurlock said that as an attorney and public official he is bound to defend and obey national and state laws.

“Montclair receives a great deal of federal aid,” he said. “I don’t want to see that jeopardized in any way whatsoever … To me, it’s not a solution to ignore the law because we don’t happen to like it.”

Like Hurlock, Schlager said she feared that if it adopted the welcoming resolution, Montclair would lose federal funds, including programs that offer free and reduced-cost lunch for students, which she said 23 percent of the district’s pupils qualify for.

“I can’t consciously gamble on that at this time,” she said.

At a council meeting earlier this month, there was also an overflow crowd as residents came to speak in favor of Montclair giving itself sanctuary status, an issue that municipal officials have been discussing since last fall. At that time in November, the council opted to table a sanctuary-township resolution over concern that it would violate the Faulkner Act, a wrinkle that most New Jersey municipalities don’t have to deal with. The resolution appears to have addressed those concerns.

Montclair’s local government operates under the Faulkner Act, which bars the council from directly instructing the township manager or police chief to take any particular action.

“We simply cannot order the police to do or not do something through the law,” Hurlock said.

Added Russo, “I do not have the right to tell the police to do something. We’re very restricted and limited in our powers over the police.”

Therefore, the welcoming resolution says that the police department should follow New Jersey Attorney General Law Enforcement guidelines, directive 2007-3, for “interactions with federal immigration authorities, refraining from inquiring as to or investigating a person’s immigration status except in the limited circumstances when they are required by law to do so and from acting as an extension of federal immigration enforcement authorities.”

The resolution also says that the township “welcomes, and urges the federal government to admit, persons and families seeking to reside in this country irrespective of whether they come as refugees, or originate from countries dominated by violence or want, or are adherents of a particular faith.”

Two Montclair High School students addressed the council, taking different sides of the welcoming or sanctuary issue. Julia Maskin, a sophomore, read a letter from her and other students.

“We ask that our town does not turn its head from undocumented immigrants and refugees but rather will continue to defend their human rights,” she said.

But Elias Irazarry, who is chairman of the Essex County Teenage Republicans, said he opposed declaring Montclair a sanctuary city, claiming that the township was diverse “except for anybody with right-wing opinions.”

He said that his family has struggled financially to remain in Montclair, and that “we need to put Montclair citizens first, not undocumented foreigners.”

Jaimie is an award-winning journalist and editor.