ROSELLE, NJ — It was standing room only at the March 15 council meeting of the borough of Roselle, as Roselle Mayor Christine Dansereau made history by signing an executive order that declared Roselle a sanctuary municipality.
Roselle is the first town in Union County to become a sanctuary municipality. A sanctuary city or municipality, while not an official designation, refers to municipalities that limit cooperation between local police and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, or ICE.
Roselle was also the first municipality in the county and the second in the state to issue municipal I.D. cards, which allows residents, regardless of immigration status, to open bank accounts, access social services and receive medical care.
More than a hundred residents, including many immigrant families, came out to support the resolution at the emotionally charged meeting.
Those who spoke at the meeting in support of the executive order included state Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, a Democrat representing the 20th Legislative District; Sarah Cullinane, director of Make the Road New Jersey, an immigrant advocacy group; Roselle Board of Education member Archange Antoine; and several residents of the borough, including immigrant families and their children.
Assemblyman Jamel Holley also made an appearance.
The resolution states that a clear policy will be established “indicating that local police will not enforce federal immigration law nor help facilitate ICE deportation, except where legally required to do so.”
The resolution goes on to state that local facilities will not be used to house immigrants during deportation proceedings, that people will not be stopped or arrested based on perceived or actual immigration status, and that ICE will not be allowed to access borough facilities, property, databases or equipment without a judicial warrant.
“Borough services will be accessible to all residents, regardless of immigration status,” reads the resolution.
But the borough’s council seemed hesitant to support the resolution. A week earlier, a discussion about sanctuary-city status occurring during an executive session at the council’s workshop meeting resulted in the council refusing to bring the resolution to the floor for a vote.
Roselle Councilman Yves Aubourg, Dansereau’s only outspoken ally on the council, called out council members at the March 15 meeting for their lack of support for the resolution.
“As a Haitian-born, I think the mayor did the right thing,” Aubourg said. “The council refused to vote on it because it’s coming from the mayor.”
All of the council members responded forcefully to Aubourg’s accusation, with several council members claiming that they had asked for more information about sanctuary-city status from Dansereau but had not received it.
Councilman Reginald Atkins, an outspoken opponent of the mayor, expressed his concern regarding losing federal funding, something which President Donald Trump has promised to do if cities take on sanctuary status.
“First of all, this is not a city,” Atkins said at the meeting. “Elizabeth decided not to do it for several reasons — possibly that it would lose federal funding. Roselle would lose a half-a-million dollars in federal funding. That was one of our concerns. Instead of having a sanctuary city, why not have a welcoming city?”
Councilwoman Andrea Staten stated that the council was trying to have a “constructive conservation” with the mayor at the workshop meeting the week before, and that the council had asked for clarification.
“We did not receive that,” Staten said. “We asked, it was stated that it would be given to us. We have not received anything. We are not going to make emotional decisions.”
Dansereau responded to all members of the council, stating that although a resolution is not law, it served to show unity in standing up for the immigrant community.
Dansereau also noted that she has been following the issue closely, has done her homework, and has put much thought and research into the decision.
“It’s not emotional,” Dansereau said. “It’s a foundation of which we live by.”
Dansereau also addressed Atkins’ concerns regarding the possible financial impact on the borough.
“I worry consistently that our president would do this,” Dansereau said, calling Trump’s threat “a form of blackmail. “He can’t do that. He can make all the threats he wants, but he doesn’t have that power. This fear of losing resources — people are scared, we all are. The economy’s not good. The bottom line is, let’s get a grip on it and partner up and do the right thing.”
In response to the council’s request for more information about sanctuary-city status, Dansereau responded assertively.
“Who can miss it?’ Dansereau said at the meeting. “It’s not something brand new,” she said, noting that the issue had come up at workshop meetings many times. “I don’t live in a bubble. It’s important. I do my homework. Forty-seven percent of our borough is immigrants. How can we live in a bubble when almost 50 percent of our citizens are immigrants?”
Dansereau lauded the borough’s immigrant population, noting their many contributions.
“They contribute, they pay taxes,” Dansereau said. “Why not allow them to get on the right path to citizenship? This is based on the ideals of fairness, dignity and justice for all.”
Dansereau also brought up the issue of a mailing that has been going around the borough, which she said sought to undermine her and her executive order.
LocalSource has obtained the mailing, which Dansereau has referred to as a “predatory postcard.” The postcard claims that along with sanctuary-city status will come an imposed curfew, a detainment camp, and that borough employees would be fired and replaced by “refugees.”
“History has an ugly way of repeating itself,” Dansereau said. “Someone sent around a really ugly postcard. Thank god that hundreds of people called me who knew it wasn’t true.”
Quijano voiced her strong support of the resolution.
“I support this executive order and am proud that Roselle is standing up,”
Quijano said at the meeting. “They have come here because the American dream is alive and well. We need to be empathetic. We need to reach into our hearts. We should not ask our local police to become our immigration agents.”
Atkins asked Quijano to comment on why Elizabeth had decided against taking on sanctuary city status.
“You’d have to ask the mayor of Elizabeth and the city council,” Quijano said, a response which brought cheers from the audience.
Quijano also reminded Atkins that the borough had been the first in the county to issue municipal I.D. cards, and that Elizabeth had followed Roselle’s lead shortly after.
“In this very room, with then-mayor Jamel Holley, Sen. Lesniak, and Assemblyman Cryan, the idea for the driver’s license registration was born because of the residents of Roselle,” Quijano told Atkins. “We had municipal I.D.’s before Elizabeth.”
Quijano said that perhaps Elizabeth would follow Roselle’s lead when it came to sanctuary city status.
Cullinane also praised the resolution.
“This policy really shows that Roselle will stand up to any discrimination that comes down the road,” Cullinane said.
Many residents took to the podium to laud the resolution, while others sat in the audience wiping away emotional tears.
“Everyone from Mexico, Latin America, and people from different countries are here tonight,” said a resident in Spanish, whose translator stood by his side.
“Tonight, I want to be a voice to those who have no voice. Thanks to the mayor and council for noticing a need in the community such as this. This way, we don’t live under fear in this town. The immigrant community is a community that works hard. There’s a fear among us that we may not come home again and see our kids. Thank you, mayor. I want to thank you because unlike other people, you see our potential.”
Cynthia Johnson, a longtime resident of the borough, also spoke at the meeting, first admonishing whoever had sent out the defamatory mailing about the mayor, then speaking out in support of the resolution.
“I’m speaking for my neighbors that live on my block,” Johnson said. “Children are scared. Parents are scared of being deported and losing their kids. If there’s an issue about money, then let’s talk about the Mind and Body Complex,” she said, referring to the borough’s controversial $59 million project, spearheaded by state Assemblyman Jamel Holley and supported by the Roselle council.
Johnson then turned to the audience.
“This is America,” she said. “Welcome.”
But although supporters of the resolution filled borough hall, not everyone supported the initiative.
Barbara Dixon, a longtime resident of the borough, spoke out against the resolution. “I hesitated to come up here because I’m disagreeing with a lot I’m hearing here,” Dixon said at the meeting. “I am not a bigot. I have nothing against legal immigration.”
Dixon then called out the mayor for asking local law enforcement not to cooperate with ICE agents.
“If you want the police not to cooperate with immigration, I don’t think it’s right,” Dixon said.
The teenage daughter of an undocumented resident addressed the mayor and council, expressing her fear of losing her parents.
“I have to live under fear every day that I might lose my parents,” she said, crying. “I’m so thankful to you, mayor, for passing this. My father works two jobs for less than minimum wage. We are hard workers. All we want to do is work hard and make sure we’re not caught by the police.”
Dansereau told LocalSource in a March 18 email that she passed the executive order to set aside any concerns the council may have. Dansereau also stated that she hopes that all of the information given by law enforcement, leaders and officials would help allay the council’s concerns.
Another resolution will come before council in April, according to Dansereau.
“I am looking forward to the council making the decision to vote ‘yes’ to a resolution to support the executive order in April,” Dansereau said in a March 18 email. “However, the mayor’s executive order has the ability to stand without the council’s vote. My preference is that they will support it unanimously to show that we are united on this important issue.”