Advocates push for focus on immigrant detainees in county jails

Sen. Cory Booker described speaking to detainees during his tour Friday at the private-contract Elizabeth Detention Center.

“You go there and you meet people who are spouses of Americans, who are parents of Americans, who have never had any criminal problems whatsoever,” Booker said.

The center houses 300 immigrant detainees — many sent from the southern border since the Trump administration’s crackdown. This center serves as the focal flashpoint for multiple political protests by elected officials.

“The question is, is this the best use of taxpayer dollars? It’s very expensive. These aren’t flight risks. They aren’t going to leave their American children. There’s a lot of these policies that don’t reflect our values, don’t keep us safe, and cost Americans a lot of money in terms of the detention costs,” Booker said.

“They are focusing on the wrong spot,” said Project Coordinator at American Friends Service Committee, Serges Demefack.

Some advocates want Booker and his fellow Democrats to widen their focus away from Elizabeth.

“It’s been the same facility they are touring over and over. And we want to ask Sen. Booker and Sen. Menendez to go into the county jails in New Jersey that are housing the majority of immigrant detainees,” Demefack said.

Protests have recently targeted Essex, Hudson and Bergen County jails which hold most of the immigrant detainees and together collect $6 million a month from ICE. Critics call it blood money. Thursday, protesters in Jersey City angrily complained about the Hudson County freeholder’s unscheduled vote on July 12 when the board unexpectedly renewed a contract with ICE. It currently houses more than 600 detainees at its county jail in Kearny.

Hudson County Freeholder Chairman Anthony Vainieri explained, “If we don’t do the contract, they’ll go somewhere else.” And that he spoke to detainees, adding, “every single one said, ‘I like it here. I like the treatment. The facility’s clean.’ There’s great medical staff. It’s close to their families.”

But Demefack says detainees fear retaliation.

“The detainees are not stupid. They are very careful when it comes down to disclosing everything that they see, because they may be facing retaliation as soon as the official is out of the jail,” he said.

Hudson County Freeholder Joel Torres voted no on the contract renewal and would rather the county get out of the detainee-holding business.

“In the long term, I would like to see it closed out. My hope being that with the next two years we have a different administration at the federal level that will not force us to be in the current situation that we’re in now,” Torres said.

The county’s ICE facility houses detainees in dormitories. The county will earn $10 more per person under the new ICE contract — $120 day, or $30 million a year. Torres says the county should rethink how it spends the money.

“How can we use those funds to provide services, programs and support for the detainees rather than it being seen as a profit-gaining measure or something to balance the budget?” asked Torres.

The mayors of Jersey City and Hoboken both oppose the Hudson contract. As for Booker on visiting county jails?

“Am I going to go tomorrow? No. Am I going to go next week? No. Is this on my agenda of things to be investigated? Yes. Do my staff go and visit these facilities? Yes,” Booker said.

The politics surrounding ICE contracts are hot. This contract gives Hudson County 60 days to cancel, but that looks unlikely, especially under the Trump administration’s immigration policies.