Originally Published in The New York Times
Annie Correal and Michael Gold - May 1, 2021
The Essex County executive said the decision to stop holding undocumented immigrants for ICE in the county jail was based on money, not politics.
For years, the sprawling jail complex in Essex County, N.J., where hundreds of undocumented immigrants have been held under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement while awaiting court hearings, has been at the center of a fierce debate over federal immigration policy that peaked during the Trump administration.
This week, the immigrant rights groups that have for months staged frequent protests outside the jail seemed to get what they had long sought: County officials announced Wednesday that they would end their contract with ICE that provided it space at the jail, which is in Newark. Nearby counties in northern New Jersey with similar contracts appeared open to following suit.
The decision follows mounting pressure from protesters and political leaders, including the state’s two U.S. senators. But in an indication of the complex political landscape surrounding immigration even in a heavily Democratic part of the state, officials emphasized that the county’s decision to end its work for ICE was entirely a financial one.
Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., the Essex County executive, said in an interview that the county had decided to end the contract only after it reached a more lucrative agreement with neighboring Union County to house its inmates at the Essex jail. He added that he had not yielded to political pressure.
“I don’t want you to think that we’re throwing them out,” Mr. DiVincenzo said of ICE. “That’s not the case.”
The number of ICE detainees held in Essex County has dwindled from several hundred at its peak to 150, officials for the agency said, mirroring trends around the country during the pandemic.
Under the county’s contract, the Essex County detainees must be moved in the next four months, Mr. DiVincenzo said. ICE officials said that the agency was looking at both local and out-of-state options for relocating them.
The officials did not comment on the agency’s contracts with Bergen and Hudson Counties, where a total of about 80 detainees are being held.
Carlos Sierra, a former detainee who spent more than two years at the Essex jail after fleeing political persecution in Cuba, celebrated the decision.
“I felt extremely glad when I heard the news,” said Mr. Sierra, 32. He described conditions in the jail as “horrible” — a federal inspection report released in 2019 found leaky ceilings, dilapidated beds, spoiled meat and moldy bread in the kitchen and a guard’s loaded handgun forgotten in a restroom — and said he was relieved other families would be spared the ordeal experienced by his wife and child.
But immigrant rights groups and some relatives of former detainees expressed skepticism. It was clear that the decision had been impelled by “dollars and cents,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, rather than by any moral imperative not to hold people in what she described as dangerous conditions.
Dariela Moncada Maradiaga, a Bronx woman whose brother, Javier Castillo Maradiaga, was held for more than a year at ICE facilities including the Essex jail after local law enforcement officers mistakenly turned him over to the federal immigration authorities, said moving detainees to another site might take them further from their families.
“This is not a victory,” Ms. Moncada said. “It’s another game. At the end of the day, the immigrants are the ones losing.”
Around the country, thousands of ICE detainees have been released during the pandemic, both because of safety concerns as the virus spread behind bars and because of Biden administration directives limiting who should be arrested and detained. But lawyers who have been filing petitions to have their clients released say immigrants with criminal convictions — including those who have already served out their sentences — have been less likely to be released.
For years, immigrant rights groups have pushed county officials — who in New Jersey have significant political power — to end contracts that allow the federal immigration authorities to hold detainees in county jails. The groups have swarmed public meetings and flooded officials with calls and letters.
During the pandemic, which galvanized protests over the rights of incarcerated people, the groups gathered around the New Jersey jails, holding placards that said “Abolish ICE” and honking car horns in socially distant protests. Inside the Bergen and Essex jails, detainees went on hunger strikes, protesting conditions and asking to be released to avoid the threat of the coronavirus.
Pressure mounted last fall after President Biden was elected. In November, commissioners in Hudson County voted to renew a contract with the federal authorities after having promised to end it. A week later, Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, both Democrats, called on New Jersey counties to end their work with ICE.
Protests outside Bergen County Jail intensified and led to the arrests of several protesters. Groups held nightly vigils outside the home of Tom DeGise, the Hudson County executive, which resulted in a restraining order against protesters, including Ms. Torres, who is named in a lawsuit filed this month by the ACLU.
Hudson County officials told local media outlets this week that they would be open to ending their agreement with the agency but that the loss of revenue was a concern.
The Bergen County sheriff’s office did not respond to a request for comment but told NorthJersey.com that it was not currently accepting new detainees.
Gordon Johnson, a former Bergen County sheriff and a state assemblyman who represents parts of the county, said he had been told that the county would only house detainees who had been convicted of crimes.
In Essex County, Mr. DiVincenzo said that the new contract with Union County meant that the jail would no longer have room for ICE detainees, who had to be housed separately from the jail population and whose numbers shifted unpredictably.
Brendan W. Gill, a county commissioner who has long pushed to end the agreement to house detained immigrants, said that he was “very grateful” to see the contract end, regardless of the reason.
“It helps you get out of something where there’s a lot of controversy around it on all sides, in a way that does not hurt the county government from a fiscal standpoint,” Mr. Gill said. “And it does the right thing.”
Both Mr. DiVincenzo and Mr. Gill said that the future of the detainees after they were transferred had weighed on them.
“There’s a potential that they’re now going to be separated further from their families and potentially go to places that have less access to quality health care, less access to lawyers, and less access to any other potential lifelines,” Mr. Gill said.
County officials have sought to draw a distinction between the contracts and their views of ICE’s aggressive policies, said John J. Farmer Jr., a former New Jersey attorney general and director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
“But that posture is proving impossible to maintain,” Mr. Farmer said, because the counties benefit financially as a direct result of ICE’s actions.
Some credited advocacy efforts at the county level for producing that shift.
“This has become a grass-roots effort to build consciousness in local communities that it’s not OK to pad local budgets on the backs of the suffering of their working-class, undocumented immigrant neighbors,” said Patricia Campos-Medina, a progressive labor leader and former President of LUPE PAC, a political action committee advancing Latina representation.
While she called the move a sign of “progress,” she said that “the bottom line is that moving to a different revenue model is not really a victory.”
Annie Correal writes about immigrant communities in New York City and its environs. She has been a staff reporter at The Times since 2013, reporting breaking news and long form features. @anniecorreal
Michael Gold is a general assignment reporter on the Metro desk covering news in the New York City region. @migold