NEW BRUNSWICK — Over the past two months, three Middlesex County jail inmates who may have been in the country illegally have been released from custody, drawing the ire of federal immigration officials. 

County officials, however, are doubling down.

This month the all-Democratic Board of Freeholders ordered Sheriff’s officers not to assist federal immigration officials in deportation matters, and ordered the jail to ignore requests to hold inmates suspected of being in the country illegally unless they have been convicted of serious crimes. 

"The County of Middlesex has and will continue to cooperate with all law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal levels to ensure the safety of its residents," the new policy states.

However, the county's policy is to "decline 48 hour civil detainer requests," except under certain circumstances. Those circumstances would include people being held who had been "previously convicted of a first or second degree serious offense."

Serious offenses listed in the policy include criminal homicides, aggravated assault, sexual assault, and human trafficking. The policy also lists offenses against property, including arson and burglary as offenses included among others.

The retainer requests would also be acknowledged when the person "has been the subject of a Final Order of Removal/Deportation issued and signed by a federal judge."

The policy states that "no Sheriff's Officer shall in any way assist any agent, officer or other representative of ICE in the detention of any individual not in the custody of the county unless necessary to assist in the arrest of any individual for a crime in progress and/or assistance is in the immediate interest of public safety."

Because detainers do not carry the same legal weight as court orders, they have caused difficulties between county and federal law enforcement, especially in light of President Donald Trump's immigration enforcement efforts.

Earlier this month, Somerset County Sheriff Frank Provenzano disputed ICE’s claim that his department did not cooperate by releasing a prisoner before immigration officials could take him into custody. Provenzano, an elected Republican sheriff, said his department spoke with immigration officials to arrange for the man, who had posted bail, to be taken into custody later that day. But ICE later issued a statement blasting the county for being uncooperative even though ICE eventually took the suspect into custody.

In response to the latest case in Middlesex, John Tsoukaris, ICE’s Newark field office director, said: “ICE shares the county’s ultimate objective to protect public safety and national security while simultaneously preserving the critical community-police bond; however, counties such as Middlesex that fail to work with ICE in the transfer of custody of criminal aliens place the citizens of their communities at serious risk.”

Messages and phone calls to the freeholders seeking comment were not returned.

Many cities and counties across the country have limited cooperation with immigration officials because they don't want immigrants living in their communities to fear cooperating with police or showing up to court. Critics of these policies call these locales "sanctuary cities."

Earlier this year, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner asked federal Homeland Security officials to stop arresting immigrants at the state's courthouses, explaining the practice would have a chilling effect on witness and victim cooperation in criminal cases.

When Douglas Baudriz-Diaz was released from the Middlesex County jail last month, it was done despite federal immigration officials requesting they hold him.

In April, the Middlesex jail released Honduran national Elder Antonio Quintero Rodriguez without notifying immigration officials, ICE said. Rodriguez has a conviction of child abuse.

That same month, ICE placed a detainer on Rolando Herrera Saavedra, a Mexican national. He was also released without ICE being notified before being arrested in Long Branch last month by Enforcement and Removal officers.

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