With the stroke of a pen, New Jersey has become the fifth state in the nation to severely limit or outright ban federal immigration detention. Advocates across the state (and country) celebrated when Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday signed a historic bill that bans new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts in the state and prohibits the renewal of existing agreements.
“For years, communities across the state alongside people in detention have pushed to free immigrants from New Jersey immigrant prisons and end the state’s involvement in the federal government’s immigration detention system,” Freedom for Immigrants said. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey said that “the legislation, S3361/A5207, sponsored by Senator Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, takes effect immediately.”
“Freedom for Immigrants applauds Governor Murphy and the Legislature for taking historic action to end New Jersey’s complicity in the dehumanizing immigration detention system,” Policy and Northeast Monitoring Manager Tania Mattos said. “This hard-fought victory reflects the resilience and tenacity of our communities—and reaffirms that our vision of a world without detention is within reach.”
But that complete vision may be delayed by the bill’s delayed signing. New Jersey’s legislature sent S3361/A5207 to Murphy’s desk roughly two months ago. Private prison profiteer CoreCivic and ICE took advantage of that window, renewing a contract for the windowless Elizabeth Detention Center. As it stands, that agreement extends immigrant detention there for another two years, until August 2023. 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.”
Conditions at Elizabeth have been so abhorrent that the property’s owner has sued CoreCivic in an attempt to terminate its lease. Roughly 100 people are currently detained there. It’s unclear where that agreement stands in light of Murphy’s signature. “The legislation does not terminate existing contracts but will prevent the long-term growth of detention space in New Jersey,” the ACLU of New Jersey said.
Advocates nevertheless celebrated the bill’s signing, which represented years’ worth of organizing. “For years, community members and advocates have fought to stop placing members of our community in cages, and New Jersey took action to ensure that people are protected not just by words, but by laws,” ACLU of New Jersey Policy Director Sarah Fajardo said. Mattos previously told NJ.com that immigrants currently detained in the state should be released to continue fighting their cases from their own communities. A major worry is that rather than release detained immigrants—which ICE has every ability to do—they’ll instead be transferred to another area of the country.
Essex County Correctional Center in Newark announced this past April that it would be ending its contract of more than a decade with ICE. But instead of releasing detained immigrants, federal immigration officials transferred dozens in the dead of the night. No one at the time seemed to know where they were sent. “Not even their immigration lawyers currently know where ICE has transferred them,” groups advocating for their release tweeted on Tuesday. Groups subsequently sued over the transfers.
“It’s now up to President Biden and his administration to build on the momentum of this victory and release the remaining immigrants in the New Jersey facilities,” Mattos said following Murphy’s signature. “By directing ICE to conduct releases rather than transfers, President Biden can be on the right side of history and work to help, not hinder, the progress New Jersey communities and lawmakers have made.”
“This win has been a long time coming, not just for immigrants in New Jersey but for every family separated by detention,’’ New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice Executive Director Amy Torres told NJ Spotlight News. “Our state now joins the handful of others who are spearheading the fight to end ICE detention nationwide. Now that this law safeguards our future, we are able to turn with renewed vigor to the fight to free everyone currently held in immigrant detention and call for an end to the cruelties of the prison industrial complex.”