Protestors Demand Essex County End Contract to House ICE Detainees

Financing county with ‘blood money’ is how one advocate characterizes being paid by federal agency to hold immigrants in county jail

Eric Lerner, Jobs and Equal Rights Campaign
As part of a continuing push to end government collaborations with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, Newark city officials and immigrant advocates on Wednesday demanded Essex County freeholders end their contract with ICE to house detainees in the county jail.

Essex is one of three New Jersey counties that currently holds immigrants picked up by ICE, with Bergen and Hudson the other two. A number of advocacy groups have been prodding both Essex and Hudson to end their lucrative contracts with the federal agency, saying the detentions are unjust and the conditions in which people are held are poor — an inspection report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general issued two months ago documented serious violations that pose “significant health and safety risks.”

“This is unconstitutional detention,” said Eric Lerner of the Jobs and Equal Rights Campaign. “The Constitution explicitly prohibits the deprivation of liberty except when somebody has been indicted by a grand jury and convicted by a jury of their peers. These detainees have not been convicted of any crime.”

‘Detention gulag’

The rally on the steps of the Essex County Hall of Records in Newark was just the latest in a number of actions staged over the past few years by a small but vocal group of critics who have so far been unsuccessful in convincing the Essex freeholders to stop cooperating with ICE. Lerner said this effort by about a dozen activists is just a small part of a growing national movement that he said is getting “more and more urgent because the Trump admin is now expanding this detention gulag, moving people from Texas all across the country, including here in Essex County.”

Protestors said Essex County officials are putting money before their concern for the undocumented, who have been increasingly targeted by the Trump administration for detention and possible deportation, even when they have not been charged with a crime. The county’s budget proposal anticipates receiving close to $43 million this year — roughly 5 percent of the county budget — from federal officials for holding immigrants. That’s more than the county spends, leaving Essex to use some of that money to pay for other county programs and spend less in property-tax dollars, they charged.

Immigrant activist Jay Arena claims Essex County is "trafficking in human beings."
“They’re financing the county on the backs of immigrants, trafficking in human beings, and our position is you don’t finance the county with blood money,” said Jay Arena, who was unsuccessful last year in an attempt to unseat Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. “We need to end this contract.”

Chia-Chia Wang, organizing and advocacy director of the American Friends Service Committee in Newark, estimated that the county spends only about half of what it gets in federal funds on the jail, which holds about 850 immigrant detainees.

Profiting from prisoners

“They get paid at $117 per day per detainee. That’s a bit over $36 million dollars a year. Plus they will charge ICE staff overtime, transportation, and other expenses not covered in the per diem agreement. Essex County anticipates $42.7 million payment from the contract in 2019. We don’t have exact costs to maintain each bed, but it’s possible the county makes a good $15-20 million in profit,” Wang said.

In a statement, DiVincenzo said keeping ICE detainees in the Essex County Correctional Facility is a way to ensure that they are near their families and noted that the county recently pledged to spend $750,000 to provide legal representation to immigrants, who are not automatically guaranteed the right to representation by an attorney in immigration proceedings.

“We have started several initiatives to enhance services, including creating a legal representation fund and reestablishing stakeholder meetings to address issues and open the line of communications with advocacy groups,” he said. “We believe continuing the program keeps detainees close to their families and attorneys; were we to end the contract they would be sent to other facilities further away.”

Activists are unimpressed with that argument.

“Don’t keep them detained anywhere,” said Terri Suess, a Newark resident. “Keep them with their families.”

Democrats’ dilemma

The Essex contract is incongruous in at least two ways. The jail where immigrants are held is in Newark, which has declared itself a sanctuary city that in most cases will not cooperate with federal immigration authorities seeking to pick up undocumented residents. And Essex is long a bastion of Democratic power, and the party generally supports immigrants and opposes cooperating with ICE. In addition, the current Freeholder President Brendan Gill is a close ally of Gov. Phil Murphy, who has declared New Jersey a “fair and welcoming” state. Murphy’s Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has ordered local law enforcement not to help ICE unless the agents have a warrant signed by a judge.

Gill pushed earmarking funds for legal aid. He also reportedly supports spending money to provide outdoor space for those held and creating a community review board to oversee this jail.

Mildred Crump, Newark city council president
Joining the call to end the eight-year relationship between Essex and ICE was Newark City Council President Mildred Crump.

“Separating families is the worst decision anyone could make,” said Crump, a longtime civil rights activist. “I’ve been in those jails. I was taken on a tour. I’ve seen what it’s like. Nobody should be required to live under those circumstances.”

Michael Venezia, the mayor of Bloomfield, disputed that description, based on what he saw during a tour he took of the jail two weeks ago with DiVincenzo.

“It was an eye-opener because conditions at the jail were nothing like they are being reported in the media,” Venezia said. “On our tour the building was clean and well organized. I was very impressed with what I saw.”

Against their will

Regardless of the conditions, advocates say immigrants — many of whom came to the United States to get away from violence and poor living conditions in their countries — should not be held against their will.

“All of the groups want immigration detention to end,” said Johanna Calle, director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “None of these localities can claim to be good places for our families to be detained, and any claims of being good are unfounded.”

Groups like Calle’s have also been pushing Hudson County to end its contract with ICE. According to data from the National Immigrant Justice Center, the Hudson jail held an average of 636 detainees daily in the 2018 fiscal year.

A divided Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders voted to extend its contract with immigration authorities through 2020, at an increased rate of $120 per person per day. At the same time, Hudson agreed to spend $60,000 on legal aid for immigrants; many of them are from New York and receive legal assistance from that state’s program. They also created a committee of advocates to propose spending money on such programs as medical and psychiatric care, expanded recreational time, and English-as-a-second-language classes.

Calle said advocates are following up with Hudson to try to get officials to agree to phase out their ICE cooperation.

Advocates have not been actively pushing Bergen to end its contract yet but would like to see that happen. NIJC data shows Bergen’s average daily population of detainees was 336 in 2018. The county was paid $110 per person per day.

“We are working to better understand how Bergen is making a profit and how the conditions are there,” Wang said. “We worry that detainees will be transferred to a remote and isolated facility if Bergen closes, but we do not believe Bergen provides decent conditions for detainees.”

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight