Lame-Duck Lawmakers Leave Coal in New Jersey’s Stockings by Introducing Sanctuary Bills

As the New Jersey legislature headed home for the holidays, one member of each chamber decided to leave a particularly dangerous gift behind for their constituents – a couple of bills to make the Garden State a permanent sanctuary for illegal aliens. 

New Jersey has a troubling tradition of pushing off controversial legislation, including contentious immigration-related bills, for the “lame duck” session after elections but before the newly-elected legislature takes office.  In most state legislatures, which are part-time, such opportunities to evade accountability by elected officials—some of whom won’t even still be in office in a month—do not exist. In the New Jersey it seems like it’s practically expected.  Most recently with the the issuance of driver’s licenses for illegal aliens.  The legislature battled this out for over a year. Yet the actual committee hearings and floor votes on the bills were conveniently not scheduled until a month after the November 2019 state legislative elections in order to ensure it would not become a significant campaign issue.

Now the legislature is up to similar games. This time with companion sanctuary bills. Senate Bill (SB) 4289, sponsored by Senator Joseph Cryan (D-Union, and Assembly Bill (AB) 6222, by Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Jersey City), would codify New Jersey Attorney General (AG) Gurbir Grewal’s “Immigrant Trust Directive”

The AG’s sanctuary directive bans both state and local law enforcement agencies from almost all cooperation with federal immigration authorities.  Before the directive, New Jersey was a patchwork quilt of different local rules, with some towns, cities, and counties having sanctuary policies while others prided themselves on working closely with ICE to keep their communities safe. In the wake of the directive, several local governments passed measures condemning it and refusing to obey it. Cape May County Sheriff Bob Nolan and the county boards of both Cape May and Ocean counties sued the state over the directive arguing it violates both federal and state law. Litigation in that case is still ongoing.

Currently, the AG’s sanctuary directive can be easily repealed by a future administration. By enacting the directive into law, the bills aim to make it difficult to end the state’s sanctuary policies in the future. 

In addition to codifying the current sanctuary directive, the bills also copy a recently-enacted California law to remove the word “alien” from New Jersey’s laws.  The bill will replace “alien” in New Jersey’s laws with a variety of vaguer terms. 

The timing of these bills may have been due to concern that Governor Phil Murphy was about lose his reelection. If Republican nominee Jack Ciattarelli, a longtime opponent of sanctuary policies, had won, he would likely have revoked or scaled back the sanctuary directive.  Passing sanctuary bills during the lame-duck session would’ve been a way to tie the Ciattarelli’s and legislature’s hands before that happened. 

With Murphy reelected (though by a dramatically narrower margin than in his first race in 2017), the level of urgency to ram the sanctuary bills through might be gone.  It’s now more likely that these bills will go through the legislative process, moving gradually over the next two years. This is more typical for legislation in New Jersey.

The lame-duck legislature resumes after the New Year.  The legislature will reconvene on January 3 and adjourn on January 11, when the new legislature is sworn in.  Right now, the legislature has only scheduled votes on bills that are already out of committee, but that’s always subject to change.  At this juncture, neither bill has any cosponsors which is a good sign.  However, if either chamber’s Law and Public Safety Committee (where the bills have been referred) schedules meetings before January 11, that’s a bad sign. If the bills are on the agenda at those meetings, it will be an even worse sign.

Either way, these bills are not gifts to New Jerseyans.