One of New Jersey’s top political bosses said he has urged Democratic leaders to get tougher on immigration, arguing in a 2017 interview that “the Democratic Party has not been attractive to certain elements of the working class of our country” because it is too soft on the issue.
The comments by George Norcross, an insurance executive who is widely considered the most powerful unelected Democratic leader in New Jersey, put him out of step with mainstream Democratic circles, which expressed disgust with the anti-immigrant rhetoric that swept Donald Trump to the top — rhetoric that consistently links the conversation about immigration to criminal behavior. A video of the interview, which was part of a “Game Changer Series” event held by the Camden County Regional Chamber of Commerce and has not been previously reported, was later posted on YouTube in 2018.
“I’m a proud Democrat. I’m a conservative Democrat. I have at times told people in Washington, whether it was Majority Leader Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi: ‘Why is the Democratic Party supporting criminals that are here illegally?’” Norcross says at one point.
“I think a path to citizenship is the right thing. But if you’re a criminal, you do not belong here,” he continues, echoing fearmongering by Trump about immigrants. “And the American public doesn’t want any. Why do we as a party support that? I don’t understand it. And that’s why the Democratic Party has not been attractive to certain elements of the working class of our country.”
When asked whether the comments still stand, a spokesperson for Norcross emphasized that the executive supports a legal path to citizenship. “He was explicitly referring to ‘criminals’ who have or who may come to the United States outside our immigration laws and process,” the spokesperson said in an email to The Intercept:
George has always supported legal immigration, explicitly called for a path to citizenship for any undocumented immigrants here now, and disagrees with the actions taken in the last few years to limit it without seeming justification or process. The United States, like every developed country in the world, has immigration laws that allows for the legal entry of people who wish to come here, including – and especially – people who are seeking amnesty or asylum. Those laws should be respected by those who want to come here and must be respected by the government itself. What has been reported as happening at our southern boarder is a humanitarian crisis and needs to be addressed quickly and comprehensively. If that takes extra resources – financial and human – they should be committed, and if he was in elected office, he would fight for reforms and increased aid. George has a long history of helping those in crisis, including sending significant supplies and humanitarian and medical aid to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.
In a second email, the spokesperson continued to clarify: “He was referring to individuals who were here without documentation and subsequently committed and were convicted of a crime – hence his use of the term ‘criminal’ and not ‘alleged’ or ‘accused’.”
Norcross has dominated New Jersey’s Democratic machine for nearly three decades, wielding enormous influence over a major delegation in the state legislature, concentrated in South Jersey. The machine he dominates has significant control over who gets to be on the ballot. He’s also at the center of a massive tax break scandal in his state that enriched him and his inner circle.
An investigation by WNYC and ProPublica found more than $1.1 billion in tax incentives went to companies and charities associated with Norcross, or to clients of his brother’s law and lobbying firms, as a direct result of state legislation he helped usher through in 2013.
Norcross dominates New Jersey’s Democratic machine, which has significant control over who gets to be on the ballot.
The South Jersey power broker, who’s both a member of the Democratic National Committee and Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, also gave the president some props in the 2017 interview. “Donald Trump borders genius and insanity; there’s a very, very close line,” he said.
“The last three weeks of the campaign he focused on what people were thinking, what was in their minds. And Hillary Clinton did not. He focused on things people were angry about, he talked about how they could be improved or changed. He came up with crazy ideas, like building walls, that people embraced. Amazing. Because they were so angry with what’s going on.”
Norcross’s spokesperson said:
George’s comments regarding Donald Trump were part of a larger discussion during which he expressed surprise that many voters supported the “crazy idea” of building a wall or women would vote against Hillary Clinton. He recognized, as both liberal Democrats like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Tea Party Republicans like Republicans Justin Amash have, that parts of our government aren’t working and people across the country are angry about that fact. The insight that Donald Trump tapped into that anger in sometimes inchoate ways isn’t controversial, but rather conventional wisdom.
As the Trump administration escalates its brutal policies toward immigrants and asylum-seekers, the old guard of the Democratic Party is increasingly at odds with a growing, mobilized activist base that embraces immigrant rights. And recent reports of the ongoing atrocities on the southern border have stirred international outrage and intensified these intraparty divides.
A physician recently compared the conditions children and infants were being held in at a Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, to “torture facilities.” The children she visited were forced to endure “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.”
“I’m pretty appalled by his comments back in 2017 and I hope that he has changed his mind,” said Chia-Chia Wang, organizing and advocacy director of social justice group American Friends Service Committee’s Newark, New Jersey, branch.
She added that Norcross’s use of anti-immigrant language is particularly troubling in a state with one of the largest immigrant populations in the country. According to an estimate from the American Immigration Council, more than one in five residents in New Jersey is an immigrant.
Though Democrats have a trifecta of control, New Jersey rakes in millions in profits from detaining immigrants for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Essex County, The Nation noted, signed a 2011 contract with ICE that paid $108 per detainee per day and was expected to generate $49 million for the county annually.
Just last week, Norcross and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, who oversees a jail in Newark that serves as an immigration detention center and is rife with abuses, co-hosted a $2,800-per-head fundraiser for presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. The Star-Ledger’s editorial board has called the detention center “too cruel for ICE.”
Local activists were incensed with Booker, and dozens of progressive groups signed onto a letter asking Booker to call off the high-dollar fundraiser. Not long after taking money from the ICE profiteer, the 2020 contender released a broad immigration plan to “virtually eliminate immigration detention” with executive actions he would take starting on day one of his presidency.
Sue Altman, state director of New Jersey Working Families, told The Intercept she finds it “extremely and deeply” frustrating that one of the state’s “most talented and promising politicians has to be beholden to people who have views so antithetical to where he purports to be.”
“We hope that Cory Booker can rise above the fray … without cavorting with all these people who are very much the opposite of where the Democratic base is,” Altman continued. “He already said he’s not taking super PAC money so we would say that this type of money [from Norcross and DiVincenzo] is nearly, if not more, as toxic as super PAC money because it comes from unelected, in George’s case, unaccountable, in both cases, political bosses who are toxic for New Jersey.” Booker did not respond to a request for comment.