ICE Protest outside Bergen County Jail: ICE Protest sign saying “Sterilize ICE Not Human Rights”. – Hackensack, New Jersey,USA – November 29th, 2020 (Shutterstock)
By Matt Katz, Gothamist
Hunger strikes in immigration detention are now being held at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, N.J., where 11 detainees have refused meals since Thursday, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The detainees are demanding immediate release, saying they are concerned about contracting COVID-19 behind bars and insisting that they will attend their immigration hearings if given a chance to return home and go back to work. While they have complaints about the conditions inside the jail, which is run by Essex County, their complaints are with ICE, which has the power to release them. Essex County collects $120-per-day for each immigrant it detains for ICE.
Since November, dozens of ICE detainees from New York and New Jersey, who are held through federal contracts at a total of three county jails in the Garden State, have gone on hunger strike. One strike lasted more than a month. Several hunger strikers have said that even though they have compromised immune systems that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus, ICE rejected their legal filings seeking release.
One detainee at Essex told Gothamist/WNYC that the hunger strikers were moved to a unit that operates as the COVID quarantine. He said the move to housing with potential COVID patients was retaliatory, but an ICE spokesman said the detainees are not living with the quarantined detainees and were relocated in order to be under medical observation.
Last year, a detainee at the Bergen County Jail, Marcial Morales Garcia, was freed on a GPS ankle bracelet following a nine-day hunger strike. That inspired other detainees there to refuse meals in hopes that it would help secure their releases. Instead, several detainees were subsequently transferred to other facilities outside of New Jersey, where their strikes ended, or they were deported.
Morales Garcia, who is now in contact with hunger strikers at the facilities, said a handful of Essex detainees who began hunger striking last Thursday have already been transferred. ICE did not confirm nor deny this account. Morales Garcia said the transfers are retaliatory, intended to punish detainees who object to their conditions by moving them further away from their families in New York City and New Jersey.
The Bergen County Jail hunger strike also sparked an unprecedented protest movement outside the jail. Almost daily, anti-ICE protesters gather to bang drums, pray, and make speeches. There have been clashes with police and pro-ICE protesters. This week, Bergen officials erected a fence outside the jail, possibly to keep protesters at a distance.
ICE detainees are held for months and often years while awaiting court dates on their immigration violations. Many have criminal records, but contrary to recent statements by New Jersey Democrats who support the ICE contracts, they are jailed to ensure they show up to immigration court—not to be punished for crimes. The federal government only began such pre-hearing detention on a large scale about 25 years ago.
The ICE contracts in New Jersey are particularly controversial because all three counties where detainees are held are run entirely by Democrats who otherwise say they oppose President Donald Trump’s immigration enforcement policies.
Hudson County’s commissioners, all Democrats, voted last month to renew their ICE detention contract for 10 years. The commissioners’ Zoom meetings have subsequently been dominated by anti-ICE activists describing detention as inhumane. Last week, commissioners simply left the meeting to avoid hearing complaints. Anthony Vainieri, chairman of the county commissioners, defended ending the meeting by calling anti-ICE protesters “lowlife dirtbag type of people.”