ICE Protest outside Bergen County Jail – “Free Them All” Banner on the fence outside Bergen County Jail. – Hackensack, New Jersey, USA – November 27th, 2020 (Shutterstock)
By Monsy Alvarado, North Jersey
A Bergen County lawmaker has introduced legislation to ban the state and counties from contracting with federal officials to hold immigrant detainees, though it would allow controversial deals at the Bergen, Essex and Hudson jails to continue.
Assemblyman Gordon Johnson’s bill, introduced on Monday, would bar local governments from renewing those agreements when they expire and prevent public and private detention facilities in the state from signing new agreements.
The proposal follows years of protests at the North Jersey jails, where hundreds of immigrants are being held for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as part of the Trump administration’s four-year crackdown. Tensions have escalated in recent weeks, with several detainees launching hunger strikes and police and protesters clashing outside the Bergen facility.
Johnson, who previously served as sheriff and undersheriff at the Bergen lockup, said he opposes jailing people solely because of civil immigration violations.
“The stories I was hearing don’t represent the values of Americans, and that is why I felt it was necessary to draft up this bill,” the Englewood Democrat said. “I believe the time is right, recognizing our moral responsibilities as a country and our attitude as a country toward human life and human dignity that separating people from their families because they overstayed their visa is not what we should be doing.
Emilio Dabul, a spokesman for ICE’s district office in Newark, declined to comment on the bill.
The proposed legislation comes in the final days of the Trump administration, which has stepped up enforcement against undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Before the coronavirus pandemic began, the U.S. held more than 50,000 men, women, and children in immigration detention in late 2019 as they awaited court proceedings.
Nationwide, the future of the crackdown is in question with Joe Biden poised to replace Trump. The Democrat has pledged an end to the use of for-profit detention centers and other private facilities to house migrants.
“I’m hoping that his policies will be a bit more progressive when it comes to how to handle those individuals who have overstayed their visas,” he said.
Whether state Democrats will get behind the measure is unclear. Democratic-controlled county governments in Bergen, Essex and Hudson have left the ICE contracts in place despite activists’ appeals. Requests seeking comment from Gov. Phil Murphy’s office and the Democratic majority that runs the Assembly weren’t immediately returned.
Todd Riffle, communications director for the Assembly Republicans, also didn’t respond.
‘They want to stay here’
Immigrants and their advocates have demonstrated for years against contracts that allow Bergen, Hudson, and Essex counties to hold detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at their jails. The agreements allow the counties to collect between $110 to $120 per detainee, per day, bringing millions of dollars to their coffers.
The number of detainees at the three jails swelled to as many as 1,800 a day in 2018 and 2019, though the population has diminished during the pandemic. There were about 200 detainees in Bergen, 230 in Essex and 100 in Hudson late last week.
In November, the Hudson County Board of County Commissioners voted to renew its contract with ICE for 10 years after a marathon Zoom meeting where more than 100 people spoke against the move. On Tuesday, Anthony Vainieri, the chairman of the board, said he wants Johnson to visit the Kearny jail and speak to ICE detainees, all of whom lived in either New York or New Jersey before they were detained.
They would rather be held in Hudson than risk being sent to another state while they await court proceedings, Vainieri said.
“They want to stay here. Our facility gives them free legal counsel [and] a lot of other amenities, like TVs and libraries and English-as-second-language classes,” he said. “We try and help them as much as we could.”
“If we don’t have the contract, can he sponsor legislation to give the counties that will lose $20 million dollars a year to help us out?” Vainieri added.
In Bergen County, Sheriff Anthony Cureton said he hadn’t spoken to the assemblyman, but said he would arrange a meeting with him to discuss the bill. The Bergen contract with ICE has no expiration date, though either side can cancel the agreement with 30 days’ notice.
Johnson said he would like to see the county end the deal.
“I’d like to see that but there is no way to do that unless we convince them to,” he said. “We cannot write a law that would cause them to break that contract.”
Johnson was sheriff from 2001 to 2002. ICE detainees were held at the Bergen jail at the time but in smaller numbers, the assemblyman said. Canceling the contract was not discussed at the time, he said.
Brendan Gill, of the Essex County Board of County Commissioners, said he is in favor of the “responsible” winding down of the contract there, and that he “fully” supports Johnson’s bill.
But Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo has defended the contract in the past, saying it helps bring revenue and keep county taxes at a minimum. He has also said the immigrant detainees held at the facility are treated well.
New Jersey is also home to a private ICE detention facility in Elizabeth. That facility, run by Tennessee-based contractor CoreCivic, is housed in a building owned by Elberon Development Group. Elberon representatives said last year that they planned to end the center’s lease after pressure from immigration advocates who had protested there for years.
Johnson said his proposal if signed into law, would prevent CoreCivic from signing any new leases in the state.
In recent weeks, protesters have been gathering outside the Bergen County jail to bring attention to the ICE detainees held inside, some of who had participated in a hunger strike late last year as they demanded release. The demonstrators clashed with police clad in riot gear on Dec. 12, a confrontation that ended with several protesters under arrest and activists alleging police brutality.
The hunger strikes have since spread to other facilities.
At the Essex County jail, 10 ICE detainees were deemed to be on a hunger strike on Wednesday, according to an ICE spokesman. Advocates have said there are many more not eating.
Under ICE rules, detainees are deemed on a hunger strike if they refuse nine consecutive facility-provided meals. That applies even if a person consumes food they have bought at the commissary during that period.
Immigration advocates welcomed the proposed legislation when Johnson announced it late last month. Lucas Guerra, a member of the American Friends Service Committee Immigrant Rights Program, and a former ICE detainee, said he was held for four months and separated from his family.
“Immigration detention is a very terrible place to be,” Guerra said in a statement. “I left behind many friends who still call me to talk about how much they continue to suffer and how much they miss their families while they remain in detention. This legislation will keep more people from having to endure this situation,”
In October, ICE issued two “requests for information” seeking potential sites in New York and New Jersey that could house up to 900 detainees within a 60-mile radius of its New York City field office. It also announced it was looking for a second site that could house the same number of detainees in the Garden State or in Pennsylvania.
The intent of the request, the posting stated, was to obtain market information, and was not a request for proposal, which is a document that solicits proposals, often through a bidding process.