Op-Ed: It’s time to end Hudson County’s ICE contract

Alina Das | November 24, 2020 | Opinion, Social
‘There is no morally defensible reason for Hudson County to break its promise now’
Credit: NYU/Law
Alina Das

Hudson County freeholders have recently announced that they will be considering a resolution to extend the county’s controversial contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As an attorney who has been representing detained immigrants at Hudson County Jail for more than a decade, I urge the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders to end the contract once and for all.

Over the years, I have spent countless hours at the jail counseling my clients, longtime New Yorkers who wanted nothing more than to return home to their families as they fought the threat of deportation. In those meetings, our conversations would often turn from their immigration cases to the conditions of the jail. My clients — who, like the vast majority of people held by ICE in Hudson County Jail are Black and/or Latino — expressed a level of fear, neglect, and despair that came to characterize the jail as one of the nation’s worst jails for immigrants.

Their experiences were the rule, not the exception. A jail is a jail. No amount of reform can change that. The Obama-Biden administration tried, but their initial attempts at reform in the Northeast only led to massive immigration detention expansion. This had the benefit, agency officials explained, of addressing a long-standing problem of transfers: too many people from our area were being detained in far-off locations in the South. But with detention expansion came a vast increase in interior immigration enforcement. People were closer to home — but more people were facing detention and deportation overall.

Infected by COVID-19

To make matters worse, detention conditions did not improve. During the Obama-Biden administration, Hudson County Jail made headlines for its substandard medical care in 2016. After six people in custody died in the jail over an eight-month period in 2017 and 2018, Hudson County poured millions of dollars into improving medical care there. Yet none of these improvements prevented the worst from happening in 2020. Dozens of people held at the jail and more than 100 jail staff have been infected by COVID-19. Five employees at the jail have died of COVID-19 this year.

The blame lies not simply with the virus — it is with Hudson County Jail’s inability to safeguard its employees and the people in its custody. Immigrants in the jail have gone on hunger strikes to protest conditions. More than a dozen federal court decisions over the last seven months have concluded that the conditions in the Hudson County Jail have violated immigrants’ substantive due process rights. Two of those cases involve my clients — people with serious medical vulnerabilities who were not adequately protected in the jail.

No amount of money that Hudson County seeks to make off the ICE contract is worth people’s lives.

With the numbers of people in ICE custody in Hudson County at a historic low, now is the time to end the contract. Anything less is an invitation to ICE to begin filling the empty beds by arresting more of our community members as a global pandemic rages on. Two years ago, Hudson County officials seemed to understand that such complicity with ICE was unacceptable; in response to public outrage at their last vote, Hudson County officials promised that they would phase out the contract by the end of 2020. The community has spoken up once again; we are opposed to the contract. There is no morally defensible reason for Hudson County to break its promise now.