NJ county ends contract with ICE to hold immigration detainees in county jail

Immigration and Customs Enforcement now has 120 days to remove its inmates

By Ted Sherman
Essex County officials said Wednesday they will terminate a contract to house detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the county jail, ending a long-standing arrangement that has led to mounting protests in recent years.

The move comes just days after Essex entered into an agreement to house Union County inmates at the Essex County Correctional Facility.

“We have had a very solid working relationship with ICE during the last 13 years. It has always been in the best interest of the detainees to remain close to their family, friends, attorneys and community organizations helping them in a facility that was safe and secure,” said Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo in a statement. But he said there was not enough space at the facility on Doremus Avenue in Newark to house both the ICE detainees and the additional inmates from Union.

The county said it notified ICE last Friday to remove its detainees from the county jail, after entering into its memorandum of agreement with Union. According to its contract with the federal agency, ICE now has 120 days to remove its detainees. As of Wednesday, officials said there were 165 people being held under ICE detainer orders in Essex.

ICE officials, in a statement, had no criticism of the county or its decision. They said their relationship with the county had been a “positive and mutually beneficial” one, and that the location of the jail had served the needs of detainees in terms of family visits, attorney meetings, and outreach from community organizations.

As to where those will be transferred, they said the agency was “currently considering its options both locally and nationally.”

Essex County is anticipating about $11.3 million in revenue from its agreement with Union, which DiVincenzo said will offset the revenue it had received from ICE.

ICE has long used county lockups in Essex, Bergen and Hudson to hold undocumented immigrants who have not been charged with any crimes, sparking demonstrations by advocacy groups and hunger strikes by those being detained.

For the counties, however, the contracts have been a lucrative source of revenue, despite the vocal public opposition. Hudson County commissioners in November voted to extend its contract with ICE for up to 10 years.

Legislators in Trenton, meanwhile, have been considering a move to end all such contracts, with bills introduced in the Senate and Assembly that would prohibit counties, municipalities, and private prison operators across New Jersey from entering into contracts “to house or detain individuals for federal civil immigration violations.”

The announcement by Essex had not been expected.

“It’s kind of a big surprise,” acknowledged Chia-Chia Wang of the American Friends Service Committee in Newark, one of the state’s immigrant advocacy groups. “It’s a welcome move. But I also hope it’s an opportunity for people to be released.”

Wang, who has worked on immigrant detention issues for more than a decade, said the ICE population in county prisons has been on the decline because of concerns over COVID, as well as an increase in deportations. But she also believed there was a growing reluctance in Essex in particularly to continue its relationship with ICE.

“It’s good news for immigrant advocates and immigrant communities that Essex County is not wanting to be part of the immigration detention business,” she said.

However, she is disappointed that the proposed legislation in Trenton has yet to come to the floor.

“It’s been sitting in the Law and Public Safety Committee since January,” she said.

Amy Torres, executive director of New Jersey Alliance For Immigrant Justice, said in a statement that while they have been calling for the termination of the Essex County ICE contract, “there is no celebration in the fact that this decision was made in order to further profit off of incarceration and detention.”

Torres said the choice to end the ICE contract in order to fill beds with people from Union County “is a decision where no one wins — where families will continue to be separated, where inhumane conditions and lack of accountability within the jail systems will continue, and where counties will continue to profit off of pain and punishment.”

Essex County already had similar joint-service agreements to house Gloucester County inmates and U.S. Marshals inmates at the Essex County Correctional Facility. Officials noted the county also has similar partnerships to house juvenile detention residents from Passaic, Union and Hudson at the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center in Newark.

Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, a long-time opponent of the ICE contract, said he was “thrilled” to see DiVincenzo end the county’s relationship with ICE. He added that Biden administration should bring an end to such contracts.

“It’s bad public policy to incentivize government agencies to house and detain non-violent immigration detainees,” Gill said.

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