DOVER, N.J. – New Jersey's top federal prosecutor told a Latino group it's a civil offense — not a crime — for immigrants to live in the country without proper documentation, a comment that a spokesman later said was aimed at a narrowly worded question.
U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, widely considered to be a leading GOP contender for governor next year, spoke Sunday in response to a question on illegal immigration at an open forum that grew heated. He said living in the U.S. without immigration paperwork is "an administrative matter" that federal immigration officials are supposed to address through deportation.
"Don't let people make you believe that that's a crime that the U.S. attorney's office should be doing something about," Christie was quoted as saying in The Star-Ledger of Newark for Monday editions. "It is not."
Christie stressed that lacking immigration documents is not a crime unless the person was previously deported.
Critics quickly categorized Christie's remarks as soft on illegal immigration.
In a statement clarifying the remarks, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said that although lacking documents is not necessarily a crime in itself, it is a federal misdemeanor to enter the country without going through the proper immigration channels, or to enter by using fraudulent documents.
]Christie "did not say, nor did he mean, that entering this country through any means other than the appropriate immigration channels is a lawful act. It is not," Drewniak said in a statement.
An immigrant could be in the country illegally without making an illegal entry or using fraudulent documents if he or she overstayed a visa.
Christie, who was appointed by President Bush in 2001, made the remarks during a community forum organized by the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey.
He told the audience it doesn't take a "genius" to see there's a serious immigration problem in this country and that the U.S. needs tighter border security.
"If there are people out there committing crimes, they should be dealt with," he said. "If there are undocumented people running around, then Immigration and Customs Enforcement should do their jobs."
Edward Correa, a member of the Latino Leadership Alliance, said the dozens of people who attended Christie's speech had a mixed reaction to his comments.
In 2005, U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner introduced legislation to criminalize any undocumented status. Though the attempt was unsuccessful, it triggered massive pro-immigrant marches across the nation.