Hudson County will stop its long-standing practice of housing federal immigration detainees at its jail in Kearny, but what that means for the 45 people now held at the facility is unclear.
County Executive Thomas DeGise sent a letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s district office in Newark Friday saying that starting Nov. 1 the jail will no longer house or accept any detained individuals who face civil immigration violations.
William O’Dea, a commissioner on the Hudson County Board of County Commissioners, who has opposed the agreement that pays the county to house the detainees, thanked DeGise for his letter. But O’Dea said he fears that the remaining detainees could be transferred to other facilities far from their attorneys, family and friends. That happened to some detainees who were held at the Essex County jail when that facility shut down its ICE operations in August.
“Our work is not done yet though we need to focus on helping get the detainees released or expediting their hearing process to ensure that ICE does not try to vindictively transfer them far away,’’ he said.
ICE has nothing to say
An ICE spokesperson declined to comment Monday on whether the agency will use its discretion to release or transfer detainees before the Nov. 1 deadline.
“ICE can use these transfers to send people across the country where they will not have family or community support or access to counsel,’’ said Pachnanda, who said her organization represents at least three people held in Hudson County. “If people are transferred, they are going to be away from counsel and in jurisdictions like Louisiana, where they won’t have the right to an attorney.”
Funds for legal immigration assistance
Although people facing criminal charges are entitled to a public defender if they cannot afford a private attorney, legal assistance isn’t automatically provided in immigration court. New York City and the state of New Jersey have set aside funds to help pay for legal services for detainees facing civil immigration charges. Hudson and Essex counties also set aside funds to help ICE detainees with their legal immigration cases.
Hudson County’s move was called a win by immigrant advocates who have long lobbied for the county to stop profiting from immigration detention, which has kept men and women away from their families while they wait for their cases to be resolved. Some point to allegations of inhumane conditions at some of the facilities, which have been the site of hunger strikes by detainees in the past few years. Advocates have also raised concerns about potential transfers.
“New Jersey jails have been no stranger to abuse, wrongful deaths and scandal,’’ said Amy Torres, the executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “But as sites close, we also cannot tolerate transfers to sites further away, especially after the retaliations ICE took with Essex’s announcement earlier this summer. The attention now turns to our senators and congressional leaders to push ICE for releases so that people currently detained can fight their cases from home and in the care of community.”
A request for comment from U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and Sen. Cory Booker was not immediately answered on Monday. Both senators called for the end of agreements between New Jersey counties and ICE to house immigrant detainees in December.
Is ICE melting?
New Jersey used to be home to four ICE detention centers before Essex County shut down its operations last month. Besides Hudson County, ICE also has an existing intergovernmental agreement with Bergen County, as well as with CoreCivic, one of the country’s largest private prison companies, to run an immigration detention center in the city of Elizabeth.
Hudson County has housed ICE detainees at its jail since the 1990s, bringing in millions to county coffers. During President Donald Trump’s tenure, the administration adopted stricter policies to curb illegal immigration, which led ICE to arrest more people who had been charged with civil immigration violations. That, in turn, led to the population at immigration detention centers to swell.
During the Trump presidency, and prior to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Hudson County housed at times 600 detainees daily for the federal agency, receiving $120 per day, per detainee. The county billed ICE more than $19 million in 2016, which jumped to $27.4 million in 2018, according to invoices provided by the county to The Record and NorthJersey.com.
Last year, the Board of County Commissioners approved the renewal of its ICE contract for 10 years, after a marathon online meeting where more than 100 people spoke against it. O’Dea was among those who voted against renewal.
After Essex County announced in the spring it would phase out its operations with ICE, Anthony Vainieri, chairman of the Hudson County Board of County Commissioners, who voted in favor of extending the ICE contract, said he had changed his stance on keeping the agreement going.
O’Dea said the county was trying for many months to find other ways to make up the revenue it would lose if it no longer housed ICE detainees. Earlier this year, the county received $7 million for the Hudson County Pilot Reentry Program, which represented a $4 million increase from the previous year, and could help close some of the gap in revenue.