New Jersey’s Bergen County commissioner board has unanimously voted to end the county jail’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Any ICE contract loss is great news for immigrant communities and the immigrant rights movement. Bergen County’s decision Wednesday night is particularly significant, however.
“Three counties in New Jersey had held immigrants in their county jails, but Bergen is now the last county to announce it will halt this practice,” Documented reports. Both detained immigrants and advocates had protested inhumane conditions inside the facility, the latter at one point even holding daily protests.
“Protests began after ICE detainees staged a hunger strike against what they say are ‘inhumane conditions,’” The Montclarion reported. “Detainees say that they are being denied medical attention as well as medication.” Detained immigrants also complained of being served abhorrent food. Aramark, the facility’s food provider, “was held partly responsible for infestations of maggots found in three areas of an Ohio prison kitchen and dining hall, and maggots were also found in Michigan prison kitchens serviced by the company,” Prison Legal News reported in 2015.
Others complained about guards not adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols. That, in particular, has been a common complaint across facilities nationally. A new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) watchdog report found that officials at the privately operated Otay Mesa Detention Center in California tried to force detained immigrants to sign a liability form to receive a face mask. That facility failed an inspection this past spring, its second time failing an inspection since Nov. 2020.
Whether officials want to acknowledge it publicly or not, years of protests by affected immigrants and their advocates led to the victory in New Jersey this week. “It’s a direct response to organizing,” New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice Executive Director Amy Torres told New Jersey Monitor. “But all it took was political will to end it, which is really damning in and of itself. They could’ve chosen to end it at any time, and they’ve chosen now.”
Matt Katz reports “Bergen follows Essex County, which ended its ICE arrangement over the summer, and Hudson County, which after reversing an initial contract cancellation announcement now says it'll be out by next month.” He notes that combined with Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature of a law banning new contracts the renewal of existing ones, “[t]his is essentially the end of local governments in N.J. subsidizing their budgets with ICE money.” While private prison profiteer CoreCivic and ICE rushed to renew the contract for the Elizabeth Detention Center while Murphy delayed signing the law, the site’s landlord has sued to end the agreement.
In Bergen County’s case, officials now have 45 days to move the roughly 20 immigrants who continue to be detained at the facility. Here is where advocates do worry because ICE may just transfer them elsewhere. New Jersey advocates have repeatedly urged ICE to release detained immigrants to their families and communities (which it has every ability to do). They have been recently joined in this call by Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker.
“When the ICE detention program at the Essex County Jail closed earlier this year, our offices made several inquiries encouraging you to release detained individuals who did not fall within the enforcement priorities outlined by [DHS] Secretary Mayorkas, rather than transferring said individuals to detention centers located several states away,” they told the Biden administration in a recent letter. They said in the letter that dozens were instead transferred across the country.
“Jean Ismael Bien Aime Nicolas, an immigrant who is currently detained at the Bergen County Jail, said in a statement through an advocate that detained immigrants at the Bergen County Jail ‘are in constant fear of being transferred after witnessing other immigrant detainees transferred out of Essex County Jail,’” Documented said. American Friends Service Committee Campaign Coordinator Banan Abdelrahman echoed this to New Jersey Monitor, saying she was “fearful for the people inside.”
Following the Bergen news, The New York Family Immigrant Unity Project issued a call urging the release of detained immigrants. “We urge that ICE use its discretion to release all immigrants detained at Bergen County Jail to their families and homes, rather than transfer them to yet another dangerous ICE facility elsewhere in the country,” a statement said. “Additionally, we renew our call that ICE immediately release all remaining immigrants incarcerated at Hudson County Correctional Facility.”