Op-Ed: Immigrant Detention — NJ’s Shameful Growth Industry

Julia Draper | September 6, 2017 | Opinion
Private prisons and some of New Jersey’s county jails profit quite handsomely from an inhumane immigration detention system

Julia Draper
American capitalism and mass incarceration are in the midst of a dangerous love affair, and New Jersey’s unauthorized immigrants are caught in the middle.

It is no secret that immigration detention is a booming industry. Just last April, the GEO Group, a private-prison company, announced that it will build a $110 million detention center outside of Houston, “as part of a 10-year, renewable contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).” Indeed, private prisons are frequently pointed to as the most heinous profiteers of detention, thriving on bed quotas at the expense of resident health and well-being

But private prisons are not the only ones who profit from an inhumane immigration detention system. In New Jersey’s own county jails, unauthorized immigrants are targeted, dehumanized, and traded like commodities in a twisted system of incarceration for profit. 

Three New Jersey counties — Bergen, Essex, and Hudson – participate in Intergovernmental Service Agreements (IGSA) with ICE that allow ICE to rent out county jail space for immigrant detention. Under these agreements, ICE pays the counties for every detainee that they house in their facilities.

According to a 2015 report by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), Bergen County makes as much as $110 per day for every undocumented person that they detain through their IGSA contract. Last year, these payments came to a total of $6.9 million.

County jails officials know that contracting with ICE can be an easy way to balance their budget, and many have jumped at the opportunity to make a profit. Immigrant-rights advocates, such as the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, allege that some facilities are even making policy changes to increase their capacity for ICE detainees. Bergen County Jail, for instance, recently began detaining women under ICE custody — despite the fact that other detention centers, which had been detaining women for ICE for years, were not at capacity.

Profit motives do not just lead to higher rates of incarceration. They lead to dangerous, poorly run facilities. A report by the NJIC states that local governments often resort to “cost-cutting on a range of basic needs for immigrants, including medical care, food, and hygiene products,” in order to maximize revenue from their IGSA contracts.

Unacceptable conditions often go unchecked because ICE’s monitoring system is set up to protect detention centers, not immigrants’ safety. Facilities are often notified in advance of inspections (and therefore given plenty of time to hide violations), and ICE personnel and inspection contractors may edit inspection reports before they are submitted. 

Take Hudson County Jail, for example. In its most recent publically available inspection, the detention center, located in Kearny, was initially found to have substandard conditions in food service; environmental health and safety; and sexual abuse and assault prevention and intervention. Yet, the facility passed the inspection without making any recorded changes or improvements.

Hudson County Jail is currently under investigation for charges of improper medical care and neglect, following the death of Rolando Meza Espinoza under their custody.  

It’s not unusual for facilities like Hudson to get away with a perpetual lack of concern for their immigrant detainees. The truth is, IGSAs and other public detention contracts are an extension of the for-profit prison model, which incentivizes detention at the expense of undocumented peoples’ rights and safety.

New Jersey cannot continue to profit off the incarceration and degradation of its unauthorized residents. But what can be done?

On a federal level, ICE needs to drastically change its tactics, which means getting rid of profit motives and per-inmate contracts like IGSAs. Until ICE changes its methods, New Jersey has a responsibility to push back on its ineffective, profit-mongering system. 

To provide a check on the financial incentive to fill detention centers, New Jersey needs to focus on local means of limiting detention — in other words, of starving the detention centers of bodies. One way to do this is by passing statewide legislation that limits the relationship between local law enforcement and ICE. This legislation should restrict local governments and law enforcement officials from honoring ICE detainer requests, which would make it more difficult for ICE to detain people indefinitely without a warrant or court order. 

In addition to refusing to honor detainer requests, New Jersey should also pass policies that prohibit local police from making arrests on behalf of federal immigration enforcement (a practice that is allowed under certain 287g programs). This would free up local police from acting as de facto immigration officers so that they can focus on protecting communities, rather than rounding up any noncitizen who can fill a bed.

Immigrant communities deserve better than to be treated like pawns in a for-profit system of undue incarceration and neglect. New Jersey and the nation at large must start protecting the safety and dignity of immigrants — and stop auctioning them off to the highest bidder.