"Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime," Christie told more than 60 residents and town officials. "The whole phrase of 'illegal immigrant' connotes that the person, by just being here, is committing a crime."
Being undocumented may be a civil wrong, but it's not a criminal act, Christie said.
"Don't let people make you believe that that's a crime that the U.S. Attorney's Office should be doing something about," he added of entering the country illegally. "It is not."
After touching on the usual topics of his corruption-busting career and battles against gang violence, Christie fielded questions -- mostly on immigration issues -- from Morris County residents and community leaders in an open forum that at times grew heated.
The U.S. attorney had been invited by the local chapter of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, a statewide group formed to empower Latinos to obtain political, economic and social equity, and hosted by the First United Methodist Church of Dover.
While Christie told the audience it doesn't take a "genius" to see there's a "serious immigration problem" in this country, he stressed an undocumented immigrant is not a criminal unless that person re-enters the country after being deported.
Rather, the state's top federal prosecutor called the problem of undocumented immigration "an administrative matter" that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is supposed to address.
"If there are people out there committing crimes, they should be dealt with," Christie said. "If there are undocumented people running around, then Immigration and Customs Enforcement should do their jobs."
The U.S. attorney said he supports more secure U.S. borders -- "first and foremost from the terrorism perspective" -- but added that "certain leaders around the state that have demagogued on this issue" are "ill-informed."
In August 2007, Christie had engaged in verbal battle with Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello, whom the U.S. attorney has accused of "hyperbole and grandstanding and demagoguery" for calling some protesters at a local immigration rally Marxists and Communists.
That kind of language is not helpful, Christie reiterated yesterday.
Cresitello had said the protesters he was referring to identified themselves as Communists, waving red flags and holding signs that bore socialist slogans. In turn, the Morristown mayor had accused Christie of failing to uphold federal laws that ban the hiring and harboring of undocumented immigrants.
But Christie pointed to a new policy directive by state Attorney General Anne Milgram, who had ordered local officers to check the immigration status of all suspects charged with serious crimes or drunken driving.
Milgram's announcement was made in the wake of the Newark schoolyard killings, in which an illegal immigrant has been charged.
Christie, a Republican appointed in 2002 by President Bush's administration, has secured more than 100 corruption convictions in his office -- including former Newark Mayor Sharpe James this month on fraud and conspiracy charges after a four-year federal probe.
Yesterday was a chance for members of the Latino community to get a sense of how they might connect with his office and respond to immigration issues in their towns, organizers said.
"The issue of undocumented people didn't start with the Mexicans, the Colombians and the Guatemalans," Martin Perez, the alliance's president, said in his introduction. "It started with the Mayflower -- none of those people had any documents."