New Jersey has made major steps in dismantling mass Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention in the state, most notably the new law banning new contracts. Just this month, Hudson County also said it would be ending its ICE agreement. But rather than just releasing immigrants, immigration officials have been engaged in a steady campaign of transferring them elsewhere, sometimes to remote regions, and in the dead of night. Both of the state’s U.S. senators have now joined the chorus of voices urging an end to this practice.
“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 Secretary Mayorkas, rather than transferring said individuals to detention centers located several states away,” Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker tell the Biden administration. They said that dozens were instead transferred across the country.
“Public health experts have pointed to transfers of detained individuals between facilities, in addition to insufficient testing and lax COVID-19 safety measures, as the main culprits for the continued spread of COVID-19 among people detained by ICE,” the senators write to Acting ICE Director Tae Johnson. This has has been an international problem, with ICE spreading the virus abroad on deportation flights. In an effort to speed up ongoing Haitian deportations, ICE has also reportedly stopped COVID-19 testing before those flights.
“Not only do transfers expose detainees to COVID-19, but they also threaten the physical, mental, and emotional health of detained individuals,” senators continued. “Any form of detention is a traumatic experience, especially among immigrant detainees who are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder both during and after detention than the general population.” Transfers can also be seriously detrimental to the health of immigrants with existing medical conditions, they note. “The destination facility may also neglect to provide the same treatment as the original facility, change a person’s medications, or leave a gap in care during the transfer process.”
But just as importantly, “transferring individuals out of New Jersey removes them from a strong legal community of immigration experts, including the state-funded Deportation and Detention Defense Initiative,” they continue. It’s a fact that when immigrants have access to legal representation, they’re more likely to win their cases. But “[i]f transferred out of New Jersey rather than released into the care of their communities, immigrants risk losing not only contact with their families, but also adequate legal representation and access to due process in our country’s immigration courts,” senators continued. Advocates have previously described being forced to drive hours to visit clients at remote detention sites, where immigrants have also been forced to deal with “dangerous and intolerable conditions.” It’s hard to see this as anything but intentional by immigration officials.
“To protect the health, safety, and human rights of detained individuals in New Jersey, we urge ICE to use its discretionary authority to release detainees who do not fall within the Department of Homeland Security’s enforcement priorities into the care of their communities,” the legislators tell Johnson, a holdover from the previous administration. The Biden administration is also currently facing a lawsuit over these transfers.
While the administration’s nominee to officially head ICE, Texas sheriff Ed Gonzalez, received a Senate hearing in July, he’s had no confirmation vote as of yet. However, Gonzalez’s remarks during that hearing “seemed to suggest he wants mostly more of the same,” wrote one immigration policy expert. Just this week, advocates held dozens of “Communities Not Cages” actions nationally to call on the Biden administration to keep to its campaign pledge to create a more humane immigration system, including an end to inhumane mass detention.
“For decades, immigrant communities have suffered the destructive and cruel practices of ICE detention and deportation,” We Are Home campaign director Bridgette Gomez said. “Today, we join allies to say no more separated families, no more deportation flights, and certainly no more profiting from the vulnerability, pain, and suffering of immigrant communities.”