U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker (both D-NJ) on Tuesday called for the release of federal immigration detainees housed in New Jersey who do not pose a threat to public safety and are not a priority for enforcement and removal.
The senators sent a letter to Tae D. Johnson, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, nearly a month before Hudson County is due to stop housing ICE detainees at its jail. The Hudson County move could potentially lead to the people now being held at the facility in Kearny being transferred out of state. Before Essex County ended its practice of holding ICE detainees at its jail last month, several detainees held there were sent out of state, including to Louisiana and Nevada, far away from family and their immigration lawyers.
“As ICE begins planning for a potential future without immigration detention facilities located in New Jersey, we encourage you to prioritize the release of detained individuals who do not meet the immigration enforcement and removal priorities set by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on February 18, 2021,’’ the letter states. “Specifically, we encourage you to release any person who is not suspected of having engaged in terrorism or espionage, and any person who does not pose a threat to public safety.”
COVID-19’s toll on detainees
The senators said that the ongoing COVD-19 pandemic continues to pose a threat to those held in immigration detention and that transferring individuals from one facility to another increases the risk of being infected. Since the pandemic began in 2020, close to 20,000 immigrant detainees have tested positive for COVID-19, they point out in the letter. There are currently 521 ICE detainees across the country who are positive for the virus, according to figures on the federal agency’s website.
At the detention facilities in New Jersey, 181 ICE detainees have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began, according to ICE figures.
The future of ICE detention in the state is in peril.
ICE melting away
Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law that prohibits state, local and private entities from renewing or entering into agreements with ICE to detain people facing immigration violations. The legislation does not affect existing agreements, but the ICE population in the state has declined. That decline is in part due to the pandemic, but also because county officials are moving away from the practice due to growing criticism by advocates and detainees, many of whom have gone on hunger strikes to win their release.
Before Essex County shut down its ICE operations in Newark, there were four facilities in New Jersey which housed ICE detainees. Hudson County, which has had an agreement with ICE since the 1990s, will stop housing and receiving immigrant detainees on Nov. 1. On Tuesday, the facility had 43 ICE detainees.
The Bergen County Jail currently houses 24 ICE detainees, but Sheriff Anthony Cureton said he is not accepting any new ones.
A private facility in Elizabeth can hold up to approximately 300 ICE detainees, but since the pandemic it has held much less, with about 104 in detention a few weeks ago. The future of that facility is also unclear since Portview Properties, the landlord of the building, filed suit earlier this year asking a judge to terminate its lease agreement with CoreCivic, the private prison company that runs the detention center. In the suit, Portview Properties alleges that CoreCivic has failed to comply with social distancing guidelines to mitigate the risk of COVID-19.
A spokesman for CoreCivic has said the company has followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as government partners even before the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at its facilities.