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Phil Murphy balks at NJ hosting migrants as Democrats fret about the Legislature | Stile

By Charles Stile,,


As a first-time candidate in 2017, Gov. Phil Murphy burnished his brand as a progressive by pledging to convert New Jersey into a sanctuary state that would protect undocumented immigrants.

But earlier this month, Murphy shut down the welcome wagon. After Bloomberg News reported that President Joe Biden's administration is considering relocating some 60,000 migrants and refugees from New York City to 11 federally owned facilities in the region — including Atlantic City International Airport — Murphy said New Jersey could not help.

Suddenly, the governor who greenlighted drivers' licenses for undocumented drivers, in-state tuition rates for their children, and blocks of pandemic relief aid when the Legislature balked sounded as if he was putting up a verbal equivalent of concertina wire around the state's borders.

"I don't see any scenario, Eric, where we're going to be able to take in a program in Atlantic City or, frankly, elsewhere in the state," Murphy told News 12 host Eric Landskroner on Aug. 31. "We are already seeing folks in New Jersey that have probably swelled in New Jersey from New York City or from other locations, but you need scale, enormous amount of federal support, resources that go beyond anything that we can afford. Putting everything else aside, I just don't see it, and I would suspect that'll continue to be the case."

Fuel for immigrants rights advocates — and Republicans

His remarks sparked criticism from some immigrants rights advocates, who saw Murphy's sentiment as a troubling departure, and a bipartisan freakout, especially in South Jersey, where some Republicans trumpeted xenophobic tropes.

Rep. Jeff Van Drew, the fire-breathing MAGA Republican congressman who represents Atlantic County, echoed former President Donald Trump's famous smearing of Mexican immigrants as rapists, criminals and drug traffickers in his 2015 campaign announcement.

“Those 60,000 people that they talk about, I guarantee you — I will put my name upon it — that there will be individuals who are criminals," Van Drew said at a press conference opposing the possible relocation.

That kind of smearing, sadly, is commonplace in our Age of Trump. Still, it was the criticism that he flip-flopped on his sanctuary state vision that apparently irritated Murphy the most. He vehemently denied the suggestion to reporters in Long Branch last Wednesday, and ticked off a resume of pro-immigration steps, including New Jersey's role in the relocation of Afghan immigrants.

"Let me remind you: No state has done more for our immigrant population in the past six years than New Jersey," Murphy said. He went on to outline — much like a candidate being pressed in a debate — his three-legged position on immigration reform: a need for the federal government to secure the borders, a need to provide a path to citizenship for 15 million undocumented people currently living in the United States, and the creation of a humane and modernized immigration system "that brings workers, that creates job growth, economic growth in the country, which we desperately need."

But without the appropriate "scale" of federal help, the Biden idea was a non-starter.

"I don’t want to overstate and give somebody some happy talk about ways we can do it on our own, because we can’t," Murphy said.

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Would NJ taking on migrants really be a burden?

Yet, to Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigration, it was a matter of emphasis. Yes, Murphy was correct in emphasizing the need for adequate federal help.

But it was not the voice of a leader taking a proactive posture. Murphy does not appear willing to use his influence with the Biden administration to secure the needed resources or — as New York officials grappling with the surge have done — demand help in processing temporary work permits while their cases are being adjudicated. It was a throw-up-your-hands kind of posturing.

Torres argued that Murphy's takeaway message was that the immigrants he has championed are now a logistical and social liability. His "I just don't see it" closing-of-the-door response reinforces xenophobic stereotypes that migrants are a danger and a drag on the nation's welfare when, in fact, immigrants have long been the backbone of a thriving and proud nation, she said.

"The wrong ears will not hear that there are not enough resources and will hear the word 'burden,' " Torres said.

Murphy may have one simple reason for opposing the Biden administration's pondering of possible relocation sites at the start of the all-consuming fall campaign when all 120 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot.

It's the kind of issue that gives Republicans an advantage, especially in competitive swing districts in South Jersey, including the 2nd Legislative District, which includes Atlantic City and Egg Harbor Township, where the airport is. The GOP, which is already harnessing voter anxiety over "parental rights" involving gender-transitioning children and misgivings about installing wind turbines off the Jersey Shore, will suddenly be given free rein to localize a national controversy.

It will lend itself to an easy and scathing campaign attack that could best be summarized this way: It's no longer a crisis along the Mexican border, but right here in your backyard, thanks to Joe Biden and your soon-to-be lame duck governor who has set his sights on a political life beyond Trenton.

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NJ Democrats would rather focus on affordability

Small wonder, then, that Murphy shut down the welcome wagon — and swiftly.

"He's being a pragmatist," said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "You can’t drop something like this on the entire Legislature eight weeks before elections and not have things blow up."

In this election, the majority-rule Democrats are already on the defensive. They would rather focus the discussion on "affordability."

The new, retooled welcome wagon will soon be riding down Main Street, handing out larger rebate checks in October. That's the kind of "happy talk" Democrats hope New Jersey voters would rather hear.

Charlie Stile is a veteran New Jersey political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


This article originally appeared on Phil Murphy balks at NJ hosting migrants as Democrats fret about the Legislature | Stile

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