Elizabeth Immigrant Detention Center May Close, Landlord Plans to End ‘Relationship’ with Operator

Colleen O'Dea | July 17, 2020 | Immigration
The facility, a longtime target of activists and the subject of a lawsuit over the spread there of COVID-19, houses about 80 immigrants
Credit: Whit Strub
July 15, 2020: A protest at the Elizabeth Detention Center

The Elizabeth immigrant detention center, long the focus of activists’ ire and the site of two immigrant deaths, may be closing soon, with the announcement that the owner of the property is ending its agreement with the facility operator.

Elberon Development Group, in an email sent Tuesday to people holding rallies calling for the facility’s closure, said the company is planning “to end our relationship” with CoreCivic, the private operator of the facility. About 80 immigrants are there now, according to a recent filing in a federal lawsuit brought by advocates against the facility on behalf of four immigrants after more than a dozen people got sick and one worker died from COVID-19.

It’s unclear what happens next. A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement referred questions to CoreCivic. The company, which reportedly received $135 million for immigrant detention-related services in the 2017 fiscal year, issued a statement but did not answer key questions including how soon it might close the center and whether it will be looking for a new facility. Elberon did not return a request for comment.

“We don’t think it (closure) will happen for a while,” said Kathy O’Leary, New Jersey region coordinator for Pax Christi, one of the groups that has been protesting. “The contract between ICE and CoreCivic doesn’t end until 2023. It is our guess that the lease probably ends at the same time. However, we have received no details from Elberon or CoreCivic.”

Ryan Gustin, a spokesman for CoreCivic, said the company has managed the facility for more than two decades and is “proud” of the work its 125 employees have done in caring for those held at the center, and that it does not make immigration policy.

“It is disappointing that decisions like this are being based on false information spread by politically motivated special interests, who completely mischaracterize our company and the meaningful role we play in solving some of our country’s biggest challenges,” he said. “In reality, we play a valued but limited role in America’s immigration system.”

In its email to the activists, Elberon seemed to indicate that the activists’ actions worked.

Elberon: ‘No role in the operations and procedures’

“The past weeks have brought attention to our family business based on the business conducted by a tenant,” the email stated. “While we do not have any role in the operations and procedures of our tenants, we do understand the concerns of those who have written and called us … As supporters of many important educational, social service and religious organizations in the community, we want our values mirrored in our work.”

O’Leary applauded Elberon’s decision but said that won’t silence the coalition of more than a dozen organizations that have been calling for the closure of the facility. They contend the facility houses immigrants in “inhumane” conditions and, during the current pandemic, has operated with unsanitary conditions, a lack of sufficient COVID-19 testing and insufficient protective equipment for detainees and workers. She said two immigrants died while in detention in Elizabeth — one in 2007 and the other in 2011.

Credit: Whit Strub
July 15, 2020: Protesters at the Elizabeth Detention Center where about 80 people currently are held.

“This is a victory for the grassroots, but we will not stop until people are released from detention,” she said. “One email cannot erase the pain of thousands of separated families over the course of 25 years.”

Serges Demefack, a project coordinator with American Friends Service Committee, said advocates don’t want to see the closure of the Elizabeth Detention Center simply lead to inmates being sent to another facility. According to ICE’s website, there are 136 detention facilities throughout the country, including four others in New Jersey — all county jails in Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties. Most immigrant detention centers are either county jails or privately operated.

 “We cannot rest until immigration detention is abolished in New Jersey and throughout the United States.” Demefack said. “We must ensure that the closing of one facility does not mean people are simply transferred to another.”