After some suspense, Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday moved to ban state and county governments from entering or renewing agreements to house immigration detainees for the federal government, but that still left open the question of what happens to detainees already here.
Hours after Murphy signed the bill, officials in Hudson and Bergen counties said they would continue to limit how many detainees they hold at their jails and said they would be open to easing out of the controversial practice.
The measure signed by Murphy, which was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), continues to allow the detentions at the Bergen and Hudson jails.
‘We need to develop an exit plan’
“This is a clear indication from the state that we need to develop an exit plan and we should meet with the state immediately to see how they can assist us financially so we can do that exit as quickly as humanly possible,’’ said William O’Dea, who sits on the Hudson County Board of Commissioners and has been a vocal proponent of ending the practice in his county. “Step one is don’t take anyone new.”
“ICE is moving folks and they come and take them and there is nothing we can do for the most part,’’ he said. “By attrition, the position we are taking is we are not taking any in.”
The legislation was introduced in January and prohibits state, local government agencies, and private detention facilities from entering, renewing or extending immigration detention agreements to house or detain people facing federal civil immigration violations.
The Legislature approved the bill in June, which was followed by weeks of immigrant advocates urging the governor to sign the measure, noting that every day he waited to sign it there was a potential for another contract to be signed or renewed.
New ICE contract last week
Last week, ICE confirmed that it had extended its contract through August 2023 with CoreCivic, one of the country’s largest private prison companies, to house detainees in Elizabeth. CoreCivic leases a building there with a capacity of about 300 beds. As of Friday, the facility held 106 detainees for ICE.
Ryan Gustin, a spokesman for CoreCivic, said legislation that attempts to eliminate options for the company’s government partners is misguided and flawed.
“We play a valued but limited role in America’s immigration system, which we have done for every administration — Democrat and Republican — for nearly 40 years, including more than 20 years at the Elizabeth Detention Center,” Gustin said. “We are proud of our 140 employees who are a part of the Elizabeth, New Jersey community and the important service they provide while caring for those in our care.”
Gustin referred questions on the extended contract to ICE. Emilio Dabul, an ICE spokesman, also declined comment on the bill.
The governor’s office did not issue a statement beyond the notice that he had signed the bill.
Immigrant advocates say still more work ahead
Immigrant advocates celebrated the signing but said there was more work to do.
“This win has been a long time coming, not just for immigrants in New Jersey but for every family separated by detention,’’ said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “Our state now joins the handful of others who are spearheading the fight to end ICE detention nationwide. Now that this law safeguards our future, we are able to turn with renewed vigor to the fight to free everyone currently held in immigrant detention and call for an end to the cruelties of the prison industrial complex.”
“For years, community members and advocates have fought to stop placing members of our community in cages, and New Jersey took action to ensure that people are protected not just by words, but by laws,’’ Fajardo said in a statement.
NJ’s four sites for ICE detainees
New Jersey has been home to four sites for many years that housed ICE detainees. They were located in the county jails in Hudson, Bergen and Essex, and in the private detention center in Elizabeth. The agreements call for ICE to pay the counties between $110 to $120 per detainee, per day. During the Trump administration, which took a tougher stance on illegal immigration, the number of ICE detainees held surged to several hundred at each of the facilities. In 2018, for example, Essex County charged ICE nearly $35 million to house detainees, while Bergen received $16.5 million and Hudson nearly $27.4 million.
For years, immigrant advocates had called for the agreements to be terminated and organized dozens of protests outside the facilities. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic led to the release of some ICE detainees, which caused the number of people held in detention to drop significantly across the country.
Last year, Hudson County renewed its contract for an additional 10 years after a marathon Zoom meeting where more than 100 people spoke against the renewal.
But in the spring, Essex County announced it would no longer house ICE detainees, leading Hudson County officials to say they too wanted to get out of the federal immigration detention business. But since then, Hudson County has not taken many steps to do that, other than limiting how many ICE detainees they hold at the facility to 50.
“We are still looking to get out of it,’’ he said.
Jim Kennelly, spokesman for Hudson County, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last week, ICE moved out the last dozen detainees it held at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark.
New Jersey will join other states with similar measures in place. California banned private prisons and immigration detention centers through a measure that was signed into law in October 2019 and went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. Earlier this month, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law the Illinois Way Forward Act, which prohibits ICE from being able to use local jails or hold contracts with detention centers in that state.