Will NJ turn up the heat on ICE housing contracts?

Advocates of ban argue facilities are filthy and encourage immigration agency to round up more people. Opponents argue that ending contracts will costs jobs and siphon millions from economy
Credit: (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
File photo: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers detain a man suspected of being in the country illegally.

The New Jersey Legislature on Thursday began considering whether to bar counties and private companies from entering into new contracts to house undocumented immigrants detained by federal officials.

Advocates of a ban say that not only do these detentions rip families apart, but also, the conditions in some of the facilities are deplorable and inhumane. Further, the availability of beds in these facilities encourages U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to be more aggressive in picking up and holding people for no reason other than they lack the legal status to be in the country.

Opponents, however, said ICE will continue its enforcement efforts and that it is better to hold individuals they detain close to their homes and families rather than sending them to another state. Ending these detention contracts will also lead to layoffs and hurt the economy, they argued.

The Senate Law and Public Safety Committee took no action on S-3361, which would prohibit the state, local government agencies and private facilities from entering into, renewing or extending immigration detention agreements in New Jersey. That disappointed advocates who said they had hoped the measure would begin moving through the legislative process. This bill and a companion in the Assembly were introduced two months ago and Thursday’s hearing was the first on the topic.

Currently, Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties have multimillion-dollar contracts with the federal government to hold detainees, as does the private corrections company CoreCivic, which operates the Elizabeth Detention Center. The bill would not end any of those contracts, but would prohibit extending them or signing additional detention agreements. Those contracts offset local government expenses that would otherwise be borne by taxpayers.

Serious money to be made

Several advocates said this legislation would give counties notice and time to adjust to the loss of that significant income. One witness told lawmakers that counties receive $110 per bed, per day. Resident Matt Dragon said his home county of Essex netted $10 million in one year from a $35 million contract with ICE.

“We have heard this will destroy the county budget and put corrections officers out of jobs,” he said, conceding that will be the case. “This will give counties a timeframe for ending existing contracts. They can find other uses for those who would lose their jobs.”

“Taxes will increase,” said Anthony Vainieri, chair of the Hudson County Commissioners. The county, which renewed its ICE contract last November, was getting $25 million for housing 600 detainees at one point, Vainieri said. He commented that if the Legislature approves the bill, it should include an appropriation to supplement the county’s lost income.

Alan Pollack, a private immigration attorney, said the bill would only wind up relocating detainees to facilities “hundreds or thousands of miles away” in other states, where it would be “virtually impossible for their family members or attorney to visit.”

More beds to fill

But a lack of beds would force ICE to parole more of those it picks up, while a larger number of beds would allow for the detention of a larger number of individuals, countered Ami Kachalia of ACLU-New Jersey, who characterized the treatment of detainees as “cruel and inhumane.”

New Jersey resident Jeffrey Hastings said passage of the measure would make the state less safe.

“It would put all New Jersey residents at risk from criminal undocumented immigrants who could roam free throughout the state,” he said.

Katherine Sastre of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice said the collaboration of counties with ICE “reverberates across entire communities.” Those who are detained have families and work or even own businesses.

Through an interpreter, Noemi Pena of Red Bank, said both her husband and son are being held. Her four-year-old daughter asks for her father “every day” and her two-year-old grandson does not even know his father, only the man’s voice.

The ‘trauma’ of separation

“They have me to keep them going, but I have no one, no financial or emotional support,” she said. “The government of this state doesn’t understand the trauma from separation.”

Kathy O’Leary, New Jersey regional coordinator of Pax Christi USA, said the legacy of ICE custody in the state is one of “shocking and avoidable deaths, all wrapped in a culture of secrecy.” A 2019 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General cited significant violations, including food that made detainees ill, moldy bathrooms and a lack of outdoor recreation space. Detainees have held hunger strikes in an effort to improve conditions.

Several advocates noted that over the past year, COVID-19 has swept through all the detention facilities in the state and resulted in several deaths of both detainees and guards.

Pollack said the state would be better off enacting a law that would result in improved conditions for detainees by requiring all future contracts to mandate improved health care and living standards or subject the facilities to monetary penalties.

“You could use that to improve facilities in New Jersey,” he said.

A number of the bill’s proponents indicated its passage is needed to prevent the potential siting of a new facility within the state.

In October, ICE issued a request for information to identify a site in New Jersey or New York to detain 900 adults. The owner of the Elizabeth property, Elberon Development Group, signaled in July its intention to end its contract with CoreCivic, though the details of that are unclear. Advocates say the contract between CoreCivic and ICE for that facility, which housed about 80 individuals and employed 125 as of mid-2020, is set to expire in 2023.

But President Joe Biden has signaled a shift in immigration priorities, including guidelines that ICE prioritize threats to national security and public safety in determining arrest, detention and deportation decisions. This should reduce the number of people being detained.

“You’re jumping the gun right now,” Vainieri said. “Give the Biden administration a chance and see where he goes with this, six months or a year.”