Roughly two months ago, New Jersey’s legislature sent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy a historic piece of legislation that would ban new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts in the state and prohibit the renewal of existing agreements. Advocates who championed the legislation hailed its passage in the legislature, saying that New Jersey could take a “place among the states to say no to the cruelty of immigration detention.”
But in the time since, not only has Murphy not yet signed the bill, pro-detention forces have taken advantage of the delay. NJ.com reports that private prison profiteer CoreCivic and ICE renewed a contract for a windowless detention facility in Elizabeth, extending their agreement for another two years until August 2023.
Murphy’s signature would have prevented the contract renewal for the Elizabeth Detention Center, a private immigration jail with conditions so abhorrent that the property’s owner sued CoreCivic in an attempt to terminate its lease. The property owner alleged that that the private prison profiteer “failed to meet the basic safety, health care, sanitation, and hygiene needs of all those detained,” NorthJersey.com reports. The allegations are in no way shocking. Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, the first detained person to die from COVID-19 while in ICE custody, had been held at one of CoreCivic’s California facilities.
Adding salt to the wound is that public word of Elizabeth’s renewal came during an earnings call by CoreCivic CEO Damon T. Hininger, NJ.com said. In a statement, Freedom for Immigrants’ Tania Mattos said the “contract extension is emblematic of the inhumane and profit-driven immigration detention system that has only served to pad the pockets of private corporations at the expense and dehumanization of immigrants and communities of color.”
In California last year, another private prison profiteer, GEO Group, similarly rushed to sign lengthy contracts before new law banning private prisons kicked in. A federal judge later refused to uphold those agreements. New Jersey advocates who worked tirelessly to champion S3361/A5207 now fear what private companies and ICE may pull next. “But until the New Jersey Governor signs this bill into law, it’s clear he risks reversing the hard-fought progress of communities, advocates, and legislators with each passing day,” Mattos continued.
“CoreCivic is a ‘for-profit’ Company,” faith leader Sister Veronica Roche said in the statement. “The greater the number of those detained in their facility, the more money is made—an incentive to keep the beds filled. Why is Gov. Murphy supporting this by letting the legislation sit on his desk?” NJ.com reported that “Murphy’s office declined to comment on the pending legislation Friday. A CoreCivic spokesperson declined to comment on the contract extension, referring questions to ICE.”
Gov. Murphy must do the right thing and sign the bill as soon as possible. “Congressmen detail ‘stark’ conditions inside Elizabeth ICE facility holding detained immigrants,” one NJ.com headline read back in 2019. Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone said following lawmakers’ visit to the private facility that “[e]ach person I spoke to had a powerful story to tell.”
“I met a Christian woman from Kenya who faced religious persecution and violence,” Pallone said. “I spoke to a man from Venezuela and a man from a Central Asian country both facing state-sponsored political persecution. I also heard from a Central American woman who was forced out of her country for setting up a program to help survivors of domestic violence.” This cruel detention at Elizabeth has continued, including during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“What’s alarming is as soon as the bill passed the Legislature, we said the bill has to be signed right away, lest ICE approach any new jails or any new counties to open new agreements,” New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice executive director Amy Torres told NJ.com “And look what happened. That’s exactly what they did.”