By Tim Darragh
on August 04, 2015 at 3:35 PM, updated August 04, 2015 at 4:02 PM

With one exception, leaders of New Jersey cities tagged as "sanctuary" cities Tuesday shrugged off the escalating rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates hammering on the issue of illegal immigration.

That exception is Fort Lee, where Mayor Mark Sokolich last month began tracking down operators of web sites opposed to illegal immigration that identified Fort Lee as a sanctuary city.

"We had absolutely zero knowledge" about the designation until a few weeks ago, Sokolich said.

Sanctuary cities is a loose term, referring, in general, to communities where local police decline to get involved in federal immigration enforcement.

There is no official list of such cities and often cities are labeled as a "sanctuary" on various websites even though local government and law enforcement have not adopted any policies.

Ever since Donald Trump has made illegal immigration an issue on the campaign trail, other GOP presidential candidates have stepped up their calls for tougher enforcement.

Jeb Bush, who supports providing a path to citizenship for some unauthorized immigrants, Monday called for withholding federal funds to sanctuary cities.

And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal went further, saying that the mayors of sanctuary communities should be jailed and civilly fined.

"I would hold them as an accomplice," he said, according to CNN. "Make them criminally culpable."

Jindal also said people who are victims of a crime committed by an unauthorized immigrant should be allowed to sue those mayors for civil damages.

"Especially if the prosecutor isn't taking action or if the mayor's not changing their ways, I'd allow the families to go to court and sue them civilly as well to recover damages," Jindal said, according to CNN.

Sokolich said the political heat doesn't bother him – after all, this is the mayor who was dragged into the Bridgegate scandal – it's the suggestion that his community is breaking the law.

"Fort Lee is committed to following the law," he said.

New Jersey police departments operate under a 2007 order requiring them to investigate the immigration status of an individual arrested for driving under the influence or an indictable offense. They cannot inquire about the status of crime victims, witnesses or others unless "good cause" exists.

After a resident asked why Fort Lee was a sanctuary, Sokolich said the borough investigated and found it listed on a web site. Its lawyers, he said, drafted a letter demanding that its name be taken off the list, which is still published on the web site

Borough officials then found that the list has been copied on any number of other web sites.

"It's herding cats," Sokolich said. "You can't rely on everything that's on the internet."

Other mayors also were unfazed by the political rhetoric.

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert cited a letter she signed last month explaining that the borough has taken "inclusive steps" to make Princeton a welcoming community to immigrants.

"Princeton does not have a policy that provides a safe haven for criminals," it said.

Like Sokolich, North Bergen Mayor Nicholas J. Sacco doesn't know how his community landed on a list of sanctuary cities, since it has no policy on the issue and the police following the attorney general's guideline.

North Bergen has "actively supported President Obama's executive order to protect families from unjust deportations and has worked with local immigration advocates to help residents become citizens," added spokesman J.P. Escobar.

And in Passaic, Mayor Alex Blanco said the city follows the attorney general's directive, and that the politicians' sanctuary talk "separates our country based on race.

"As these candidates appeal to Republican primary voters, they are positioning themselves further and further away from middle-of-the-road voters who live in the real world," Blanco said. "Today's immigrants are working hard to achieve the American Dream just like our ancestors who immigrated here before them."

Questions to other communities on sanctuary city lists, including Camden and Union City, were not returned. Officials in Newark, which does have a police directive ordering police not to enforce immigration detainer requests, declined comment.

Like Princeton, Trenton has no sanctuary policy, said spokesman Mike Walker.

"We welcome anybody that wants to come here and be part of our community," he said.