No sanctuary in New Jersey: Democrats about-face on migrants as election looms


“A disruptive incursion of this type would negatively impact our region and residents,” three insurgent Democratic candidates said in a statement.

“Atlantic City has been a perennial dumping ground,” Mayor Marty Small Sr. said at a press conference, calling it an example of so-called Greyhound Therapy. The proposal from the Department of Homeland Security never appeared to be anything approaching a “plan,” as opponents were quick to characterize it.

But it came at the unofficial start of a campaign season in which all 120 seats in the state Legislature are on the ballot, and as Democrats have already struggled to unify around a campaign message as Republicans hit them on the culture war issue of trans rights and harness the quickly-decreasing popularity of the Murphy’s wind power plans.

Just the specter of housing large numbers of migrants from New York City threatens to nationalize an election in a deep blue state where Biden’s approval rating is underwater and its senior U.S. senator, Democrat Bob Menendez, is under pressure to resign after federal authorities indicted him Friday on bribery charges.

“The issue of migrants, an out-of-control border and the problems that are now emanating from sanctuary city policies are now inexorably tied to Democrats,” said Chris Russell, a Republican consultant in several South Jersey legislative races.

He said GOP campaign ads will feature the migrant issue. “This is a Democrat problem that they have, and they own it lock stock and barrel.”

The response from New Jersey Democrats was effectively the same position taken by New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Gov. Kathy Hochul and many of their fellow Democrats as migrants have traveled far beyond the southern border, some by the political motivations of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. They find themselves in the unlikely company of conservatives, like Abbott, after they’ve spent months condemning their immigration stances.

New Jersey is one of the richest states in the nation, but Atlantic County has not shared in that prosperity in recent years, especially with a spate of casino closures that occurred as the city’s decades-long legal gambling monopoly gave way to competition in other states. Local officials hope to position the airport, which is actually located in nearby Egg Harbor Township, as one of the region’s top economic engines. (The airport is home to F-16s from the New Jersey Air National Guard and an FAA research and test base.)

Some Republicans couched their opposition to the proposal in terms of fear. “I guarantee you — I will put my name upon it — that there will be individuals who are criminals,” Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) said at the press conference attended by Small.

But Democrats stuck to economic terms.

Republican state Sen. Vince Polistina issued a press release saying “hell no” to the idea. His Democratic opponent, Caren Fitzpatrick, an Atlantic County commissioner who in 2019 voted against a resolution that opposed making Atlantic a sanctuary county, quickly followed — just in less strident language. She said she opposed the proposal on the grounds of “the delicate balance we are currently striking in Atlantic County as we work to reinvent our economic path forward after years of lost jobs and shuttered businesses.”

Democratic officials are hoping the party’s full-court press of opposition takes it off the table as a campaign issue in a long-competitive area that has been trending Republican in recent years. In the last legislative election, in 2021, Republicans gained seven seats in the Legislature, including two in Atlantic County’s 2nd district. Democrats still hold a sizable advantage — 25-15 in the Senate and 46-34 in the Assembly — but Murphy and party leaders have worried a low-turnout election like the one in November could favor the GOP.

Both parties are blaming the federal government for decades without a comprehensive immigration plan and path to citizenship for undocumented residents.

Atlantic County Democratic Chair Michael Suleiman said he believes Democrats’ quick response on the Biden administration immediately deflated the issue, insulating the party from GOP attacks.

“I don’t know what the Republicans were expecting, but I think they were caught flat-footed when the Democrats took a similar position they have. I don’t accept the premise that it’s going to be an issue, quite frankly,” Suleiman said in a phone interview.

But, Suleiman said, Democrats are free of the “xenophobia” expressed by Van Drew, a former Democrat who turned supporter of former President Donald Trump.

“My father was an immigrant, came here not speaking a word of English when he was in high school. Immigration is a very important issue to me. We don’t want to embrace the rhetoric of the other side,” he said. “I think folks are maybe lumping us in with the xenophobic rhetoric and we want to make clear as a statewide party we have the same position, I just don’t believe it’s the same rhetoric.”

Advocates for migrants aren’t buying it.

Sara Cullinane, director of the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road Action NJ, said Democrats risk alienating their base with their “knee-jerk reaction.”

“This is a really disappointing move from Democrats who should know better,” she said. “Many New Jerseyans have an immigrant parent. We’re a state of immigrants, and alienating those voters, and coming out against refugees fleeing for their safety. These are people fleeing violence, unsafe conditions. We need to be a welcoming state. We need to uphold those values.”

Murphy, meanwhile, has pushed back against backlash to his comments against housing the migrants, noting New Jersey took in many Afghan immigrants at a military base following the U.S.’s 2021 withdrawal from the country.

“The Afghan situation is a good example of this. Federal government was right there with resources as a partner, we knew it was within us that it was manageable. We do not see any of that right now,” Murphy said at a Sept. 6 press conference.

In the end, even the proposal’s most outspoken opponents now say the idea, to the extent it was ever alive, is dead. Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, a Republican, said he doesn’t think it’s going to happen because “it was so preposterous from the get-go.” But he still thinks Democrats should answer for it in the legislative elections.

“Those smug, pompous individuals that wanted to show they were so much better, so much more compassionate than [Trump] when they wanted to make their states a sanctuary state and their cities sanctuary cities — be careful what you wish for,” Levinson said.


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