The President’s Executive Order creating an immigration ban on January 30, 2017 quickly brought  immigration front and center into the national debate. Then, with the first knock-out punch played out in federal court, many citizens got the wrong impression that immigration law is an issue best played out on the national stage by U.S. attorneys such as Bob Ferguson. But while activists and legal authorities keep their attentions focused on the national stage, local sheriff’s and New Jersey’s unique office of freeholders are worth watching as closely. Usually sleepy Cape May County, NJ is a recent case in point.

Cape May County is quiet Victorian county at the southern-most tip of New Jersey that capemaycounty-1872-small.490.521.s 2forms the famous peninsula shape at the tip of the Garden State.  It is best known for its namesake town of Cape May, with historic gingerbread Victorian homes. It is likely the last place one would envision a stand-off on immigration laws.

Most are sensitized to immigration being a hotbed issue in Arizona, Texas and California, states that border Mexico. Cape May borders the state of Delaware and the Atlantic Ocean. In past years, it has attracted illegal immigrants jumping off various Merchant Marine ships from foreign ports, and recently with its cousin Atlantic County, attracts many Russian students each summer who bus tables and work the local shore town boardwalks and restaurant sites. It is not known to locals for any type of massive illegal immigration issues.

Yet, in early March, Associated Press picked up a story from the Press of Atlantic City that uncovered a request from the Cape May County Sheriff’s office to join the Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement (ICE ) 287(g) program.  Local residents who usually spend more time on building the county’s organic farming reputation and farm to table movement are suddenly studying up on Section 287(g). A recent Cape May Huddle of women that grew out of the Women’s March in January spent an evening learning about this little known section of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and how it’s impacting their local area.

Turns out the Sheriff’s office has applied to join at least three other NJ counties (Monmouth, Salem and Hudson) to be part of the program, applying for three officers to receive the four-week training that then allows them to be a local enforcement arm of ICE. The issue goes before the county’s five Freeholders, who act as the executive and legislative branch of county government. Increasingly, local citizens are attending normally empty freeholder meetings to voice their concerns about this new level of enforcement authority and question why it’s even on the table for consideration as a key issue for a small county with little to no immigration issues.

To put it in perspective – Cape May County has less than 100,000 citizens and continues to experience declines in year-round population. In the summer, its 30-miles of beaches attract thousands of tourists and increasingly wealthy second-home owners, with the summer population swelling 8 fold. Despite that, it is not a wealthy county, with the median household income reported as $53,889 for 2015 according to the Census. Of the year round population, 89% are white.

The Cape May County Sheriff’s department has a storied history of controversy of its own without any relationship to ICE.  However in 2016, it did have an outdated jail and put in for $37 million renovation that would allow the jail population to modernize and increase from 188 to 360 inmates. It is never expected to have 360 inmates from crime in Cape May, but according to a 2016 story by the Press of Atlantic City, proposed to rent out the facility at $100 per day per inmate to ICE and other counties.

Local residents are now questioning if the Sheriff’s request to become an arm of ICE is more about filling and paying for the jail than addressing any real immigration issue. Lena Smith recently started a petition to stop Cape May County’s Correctional Facility and Sheriff’s office from entering the 287(g) program. As of 3-12-17, 3,465 signatures had been gathered, close to the 4,000 needed to make the petition effective. Many come from Fort Lee, Hackensack and other towns in North and West Jersey with stronger democratic leanings than the largely republican Cape May County.

As local Cape May groups are gathering to fill local Freeholder meetings to voice their concerns as early as this week, the story has become a symbol for the importance of local politics in national issues. Few every pay attention to Freeholders meetings or understand what Freeholders do.  Suddenly, freeholders in NJ are increasingly in the news. Freeholder John Carman of Atlantic County made local news when he questioned who would making dinners the night of the Women’s March last January.  After much brouhaha, including women bringing him Mac and Cheese boxes for him to cook his own dinner,  he issued a reluctant apology. Now at least two women have announced plans to run for Freeholder office in the next elections.

Regardless of where you live, here are some Little Hinge actions to consider:

  1. Find out and familiarize yourself with the names and party affiliations of your own Freeholders. If outside of NJ, find who is your county executive or who controls the local Sheriff’s budget.
  2. Attend a local Freeholder or county government meeting. Meetings are posted on county web sites.
  3. Consider running for local elections such as Freeholder, or support new seat seekers considering future runs. Many women are fundraising now to determine viability of their campaigns.
  4. Join an Action Together Group on Facebook (there’s an Action Together Gloucester County and state Action Together New Jersey). There is also one called Action Together Atlantic/Cape May.
  5. Find a huddle or indivisible group near you. One of the best ways is to search Facebook. There is an Indivisible New Jersey group and for most other states. Indivisible is stressing the importance of local elections including school boards and freeholders.  The Cape May County issue above now demonstrates how local elections can be important in the deployment of national policies.