The state’s top law enforcement agency is threatening action against two county sheriff’s offices that defied the Murphy administration’s policies on illegal immigration by renewing cooperation agreements with ICE.

In letters sent Saturday to Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden and Cape May County Sheriff Robert Nolan, the state takes them to task for quietly renewing agreements with the feds despite a new policy requiring that local agencies obtain permission from the state Attorney General’s Office.

The controversy involves Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with immigration authorities, as well as a directive the Murphy administration implemented in March to limit such cooperation.

The directive has been derided by critics, using language of President Donald Trump, as a “sanctuary state” policy. The sheriffs, who appear to have violated state rules, are being defended by fellow politicians who are criticizing the Murphy administration for not following federal policies.

In Monmouth and Cape May, the sheriff’s offices run the county jails, which are used to lock up people awaiting trial and inmates convicted of lesser offenses. Their cooperation with ICE has entailed running immigration checks on inmates to see if they are wanted by ICE and holding inmates, sometimes past their release date, on behalf of ICE.

A directive announced by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in late November limited local police and jail cooperation with ICE when it comes to civil matters and required that ICE obtain warrants for jails to detain inmates on their behalf.

The letters by Criminal Justice Director Veronica Allende said 287(g) agreements “blur this distinction” between authorities who enforce criminal law and federal immigration officials who enforce civil immigration law.

“This blurring of responsibilities makes it more difficult for residents of New Jersey to understand how different law enforcement agencies operate, in turn undermining the hard-earned trust that New Jersey’s law enforcement officers have built with the public.”

The directive did not ban existing agreements but Grewal’s office wanted to be informed of plans to renew in order to provide oversight and make sure the agreements were “only used when truly necessary to serve compelling law enforcement purposes.”

But the Monmouth Sheriff’s Office renewed its agreement for 10 years after the policy went into effect while the Cape May Sheriff’s Office renewed its agreement in February, neither without informing Grewal. Allende said her office was "surprised" to learn about the renewals when a journalist called to ask about them last week.

Neither sheriff, both elected as Republicans, returned requests for comment on Tuesday.

Allende gave both sheriffs a deadline of Aug. 6 to provide her office with the information that the state would have required had the sheriffs followed the directive and informed the Attorney General’s Office of their intent to renew.

Allende is seeking a cost-benefit analysis of the agreement; analysis on how the agreement would affect with law enforcement’s relationship with immigrant communities, including their ability to secure cooperation of victims and witnesses; an examination of how neighboring communities manage to protect the safety of their communities without such agreements; a summary of public views from at least one public forum held in their county; and at least two years of data regarding the types of assistance the sheriff’s offices have provided to federal civil immigration authorities.

On Aug. 6, the Attorney General’s Office intends to issue a directive prohibiting sheriff’s officers in the two counties from exercising any authority under the 287(g) agreement.

Republican lawmakers across the state blasted the administration’s letters and renewed their criticism on the state’s immigration policy.

“It’s completely outrageous that the Murphy administration continues to block law enforcement from protecting their own communities against illegal immigrants who have committed egregious crimes,” Assemblyman Hal Wirths, R-Sussex, said Tuesday. “The sheriffs have a duty and right to stop rapists and murders living in New Jersey illegally from seeking asylum in their towns. It’s time our attorney general starts protecting law-abiding citizens.”

Grewal has repeatedly explained that the immigration policies do not prevent cops from cooperating with immigration officials on criminal investigations.

In Sussex County, Republican Sheriff Mike Strada is supporting a November ballot question asking county voters to decide whether the sheriff should ignore the state’s immigration directives. Gewal has questioned the legality of the ballot measure.

In Ocean County, Republican state Sen. Jim Holzapfel called the policy “an outrageous and dangerous political statement that jeopardizes the safety of millions of New Jersey residents.”

Assemblyman Greg McGuckin said “it’s all part of Governor Murphy’s agenda to turn New Jersey into the California of the East Coast, without any regard for our constituents.” And Assemblyman Dave Wolf, all three representing the 10th Legislative District, added: “We cannot stand by and watch as New Jersey morphs into a state where illegal immigrants can get college tuition assistance, taxpayer-funded legal aid, driver’s licenses, and many other perks promised by Gov. Murphy.”

Grewal on Tuesday said he’s disappointed that Golden and Nolan secretly made agreements with ICE then tried to mislead everybody about what they’ve decided to do.

“If you can’t trust your law enforcement officers to give you a straight answer, how can you help build that trust that we need to promote public safety in this state?" Grewal said.

He said the sheriffs can explain why they feel they need these types of agreements.

“They can make that case, but instead of making that case, they chose to do this under the cover of darkness, and then they chose to lie about it when they were asked about it and we still haven’t gotten a straight answer.”

David Matthau contributed to this report.

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.