More than 30 federal immigration detainees at the Essex County jail were transferred Tuesday to unknown locations, raising concerns from advocates who have long pushed not just for the closure of such facilities but also for the release of those held in them.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency transferred another 16 detainees held in Essex County in the early morning hours, a county official said, leaving the immigration detainee population at the jail at 60. Essex County officials had expected the number to drop since all of the ICE detainees need to leave the building in seven weeks.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal class-action lawsuit that seeks to block the long-distance transfer of ICE detainees from the Essex County jail in Newark.
“Today’s suit is a challenge to a decision made by the Biden administration — it’s not a Trump hold-over. True to form, we will sue any administration — Democrat or Republican — and hold them accountable when they take positions that violate civil liberties and civil rights,’’ said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero in a statement. “This may be one of the first lawsuits filed against the Biden administration by advocacy groups, but I’m guessing it won’t be the last.”
The case was brought by the national ACLU, the ACLU of New Jersey, and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild on behalf of ICE detainees at the facility who are facing transfer.
Transferred far from NJ
When facilities close, ICE transfers detained immigrants to other states, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and other places in the Deep South, according to the ACLU statement.
Hours after ICE made its transfers Tuesday, some immigration attorneys said they were worried that detainees would not only be located farther from family and friends, but also from their legal advisers.
“It could range from bad to really bad, and really bad is going to be a situation where we can’t even talk to them, which often happens when our clients are transferred right before deportation,’’ said Jordan Weiner, detention attorney for American Friends Service Committee in Newark, who is expecting two of her clients to be transferred in coming days. “In the past, I’ve found it impossible to contact them on my own, or for them to contact me.”
Attorneys added that ICE was not following immigration priorities set by the Biden administration, which direct the agency to focus its attention on arresting and detaining people who pose a threat to national security, border security and public safety.
“ICE has repeatedly chosen to continue the callous and inhumane practice of detaining and transferring people who are not enforcement priorities at unnecessary government expense, and at the risk to public health and safety during a pandemic,’’ said Sharone Schwartz Kaufman, the deputy attorney-in-charge from the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project and the Legal Aid Society.
Emilio Dabul, a spokesman for ICE in Newark, said in an emailed statement Wednesday that the transfers were made after a request by the Essex County Correctional Facility as part of its plan to depopulate its ICE detainees.
Worries over brother
Among those moved from the Essex County jail was Lenyn Munoz Paredes, 37, the father of a 4-year-old girl. His younger brother, Juan Munoz of Paterson, said that he found out Tuesday afternoon that his brother was now in Nevada. He said the family was devastated and that he was afraid to tell his parents that their son was no longer in New Jersey.
“We don’t know how we are going to visit him, speak to him, he has a daughter and nieces here,’’ Munoz said. “This has just made things 10 times harder for us.”
Munoz Paredes, who moved to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic when he was 12 years old, helped raise his younger brother.
“He used to pick me up from school in kindergarten and went with me to school to pick up my report card,’’ Munoz said.
Munoz Paredes, who had moved to Pennsylvania, was transferred to ICE custody in October 2019 after serving four years in prison on gun-related charges. Last year, he was among immigrant detainees at the Essex County jail who participated in a hunger strike to get released.
“When he got arrested, it was devastating to our family. We took a big hit with it, and now that he has been moved even further and if, God forbid, he gets deported, it’s just so stressful,’’ he said.
Ongoing decline in ICE detainees in NJ
The transfers come days after the state Senate passed a bill that would bar new contracts that allow county and private detention companies to house federal immigrant detainees in the Garden State. That bill, which would also prohibit the renewal or expansion of existing agreements, now awaits Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature.
Meanwhile, the number of ICE detainees held at the four ICE detention facilities in the state continued to drop, with fewer than 250 held on Tuesday.
Phil Alagia, chief of staff of Essex County, said around 30 detainees were transferred from that county’s detention center Tuesday and that the county has reminded ICE that it needs to remove all of its detainees by Aug. 23. In April, the county announced it would end its controversial, 13-year practice of housing federal immigration detainees at its county jail in Newark, choosing instead to house more non-ICE inmates from Union County.
Alagia said he did not know where the detainees were transferred or what their final destination would be.
There are four facilities in New Jersey that house detainees for ICE. Besides the 76 ICE detainees remaining at the Essex County jail Tuesday, there were 38 ICE detainees at the Bergen County jail and 32 in Hudson, according to Dabul, the ICE spokesman.
Dabul also said there are 95 detainees at a facility in Elizabeth run by CoreCivic, a for-profit detention company. The future of that facility is unknown since the owner of the building has filed a lawsuit to end its lease with CoreCivic.
Banan Abdelrahman, a campaign coordinator for American Friends Service Committee, arrived outside the Essex County jail around 5:15 a.m. Tuesday to join in a protest against the transfers where people held home-made signs that read “Free them All’’ and “Abolish ICE.”
Abdelrahman said she saw several vans, including those from ICE leaving the facility early in the morning. She said one protester followed one of the ICE vans all the way to Newark Liberty International Airport.
“We were hoping to put pressure to stop the transfers,’’ Abdelrahman said. “This for me is the worst part of our country and our humanity that we can do something like this. I feel I bore witness to something so heavy today.”