New Jersey immigration politics has exploded into the national spotlight over the past month.

Immigrants detained at the Bergen County jail have been on hunger strike for several weeks, while protesters outside have met with escalating police violence. At a fiery Hudson County commissioners meeting on Nov. 24 that lasted 12 hours, over 100 people unanimously spoke against the renewal of a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigrant detainees in the county jail for revenue. When the freeholders voted to renew the contract anyway, reneging on a 2018 promise, condemnation came from New Jersey U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez and indie-rock singer John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. Menendez referred to the fruits of the contract as “blood money.”

Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, who has ultimate authority over the contract, has avoided meeting with activists and advocates. In response, they have protested outside his home. DeGise, in turn, got a restraining order against them and on Dec. 8, four activists were arrested for contempt by Hudson County sheriff’s officers, who slammed one against a car, as they were leaving a peaceful sidewalk vigil.

Over the past few years, we’ve come to expect this behavior from Republicans, who have ramped up ICE’s capacity while vilifying peaceful protesters as radicals and anarchists. But in New Jersey, every one of these decisions has been made by Democrats. To understand why, we need to examine the bipartisan history of immigration detention, as well as New Jersey’s unique county political machines and their enormous but often opaque power.

The figure of Frank “Boss” Hague situates DeGise within a political lineage of Democratic machine politics that have dominated New Jersey for over a century. Hague served as mayor of Jersey City from 1917 to 1947, running a political machine so infamous, it later landed him as a character on the television drama “Boardwalk Empire.” “I am the law,” Hague notoriously declared.

Hague, who came from an Irish Catholic family, reflected the origins of many urban political machines that grew out of working-class immigrant communities. Patronage and local services helped skirt over the contradictions of their coalitions, which politically favored corporate and elite interests. Hague enticed sweatshop factories fleeing nascent unionization out of New York City, while also allowing the American Federation of Labor to organize more skilled workers on a strict no-strike agreement.

When the Committee for Industrial Organization (later Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO) arrived in Jersey City in 1937 set on building industrial unions, it found a city “controlled by the Democratic Party machine as a brutal dictatorship without any civil rights for the exploited workers,” according to the Socialist Appeal. Hague met their efforts with the expulsion of leafleteers by police and the arrest of 13 at a protest, after which city ordinances were invoked to deny permits for public meetings. Socialist activist Norman Thomas titled a pamphlet “Hagueism is Fascism”; others called Hague by the title “Hitler on the Hudson.”

Hague called CIO organizers “un-American Reds and radicals” while vowing to “'protect our city from invasion by the Communists.” Hague ultimately lost in court, when in 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the rights of “public assembly in the streets or parks of the city.”

Yet while Hague v. CIO is rightly remembered as a landmark court decision, it did not stop the Hague political machine. Not only did he stay in control of Hudson County for another decade, he absorbed the CIO into his coalition to the point that it endorsed him for reelection. Enhanced civil liberties did not necessarily translate into increased labor power, and CIO leaders found that Hague and his machine could sometimes mediate conflict more smoothly than a strike.

And so it went in Jersey City, just like other cities dominated by more flamboyant machine mayors such as Richard Daley of Chicago and Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia. And this power has persisted in New Jersey. With an “excessively local distribution of power ” — New Republic reporter Alec MacGillis counted “566 municipalities, 21 counties, and innumerable commissions and authorities” in 2014, “all of them generous repositories of contracts and jobs” — county-level bosses carry on Hague’s tradition in ways that maintain a uniquely Jersey intransigence.

All of this intersects with the history of immigration politics in dangerous ways. As scholar Robyn Magalit Rodriguez explains, despite having one of the most heavily immigrant populations of any state, New Jersey has also delivered “some of the most anti-immigrant policies in the United States,” often at the local level. Some stem from nativism, but others come from a desire for revenue. Immigration detention, Rodriguez notes, “has been a moneymaking scheme for local municipalities.”

Here, New Jersey Democrats intersect with national ones. The current detention system was expanded on the watch of President Bill Clinton. In response to fears of terrorism and undocumented immigration by people of color, in 1996, Congress passed and Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The result was a system in which immigration law and enforcement are controlled at the federal level, but counties are critical gears in the machinery of deportation and detention.

And so, detention became a cash cow with deep-blue New Jersey counties finding themselves “addicted to ICE.” In 2018, for instance, the three counties that use their jails to generate ICE revenue took in a combined $87 million. This money is particularly useful in New Jersey where property taxes are a perpetually contentious issue. When Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo signed a contract with ICE in 2011, he did so with a promise to “keep taxes low.

The state enacted bail reform in early 2017, pointing to a need to downsize correctional facilities. But instead, the jail beds emptied by that liberal overhaul were promptly filled by people ensnared in the Trump administration’s increasingly punitive immigrant detention policies. New Jersey Democrats protested Trumpism, even as the municipalities they ran profited from it.

Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has successfully fought Democratic Party bosses, especially in South Jersey, but not on issues of ICE. In 2018, the state attorney general’s office implemented the Immigrant Trust Directive, which limited cooperation between state and local law enforcement and federal immigration officials. But, county ICE contracts were notably excluded from the otherwise sweeping order (The Attorney General’s office argues that it does not have the authority to direct county governments on what agreements they can enter into regarding the detention of individuals for civil immigration enforcement purposes). Gov. Murphy has refused to comment on the Hudson County ICE contract renewal.

Other ICE critics, like Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop (D) who called the ICE contract “profit from human misery” in 2018 when he was pitted against DeGise and the machine, have notably avoided the topic in 2020 as he has worked more closely with the powers that be.

The debate over ICE exposes how New Jersey’s unique phalanx of local power centers has enabled machine power to persist into the 21st century. And political machines enable politicians like DeGise to ignore public will, confident that they will escape voters’ wrath. In New Jersey, power trumps party or ideology.