Fourteen protesters were arrested outside the Bergen County Jail on Tuesday as they tried to block an Immigration and Customs Enforcement van that they believed was carrying immigrant detainees to the airport for deportation.
The Bergen County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail and contracts with ICE to lock up undocumented immigrants, carried and dragged the sitting protesters out of the way of the ICE van before bringing them inside the jail to be booked. A sheriff spokeswoman said they were charged with offenses that included rioting and criminal trespassing; one was charged with aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer after he ran toward an officer.
A video of the arrests that was shared with Gothamist/WNYC by an activist on the scene shows a superior officer putting one protester in a headlock and then forcibly twisting the ankle of another. The spokeswoman said the use of force was under review by its professional standards unit.
The arrests followed an overnight vigil outside the jail to demand the release of a detainee who they said was transferred to ICE custody based on a conviction for marijuana, which is now legal in the state. For a $110-per-detainee daily fee, the sheriff’s office jails immigrants who do not have legal status, often for years, to ensure they show up for immigration court hearings and deportation flights.
This week, lawyers for the detainees, most of whom live in New York, complained in a letter to ICE that their clients were being “disappeared,” transferred by ICE to facilities around the country without warning nor notice to their attorneys. A spokesman for ICE said the agency had no comment about the alleged moving of detainees.
The ICE spokesman also said that ICE couldn’t say how many immigrants might have been in the van Tuesday nor where it was going, citing “security reasons,” though county jails in New Jersey often turn over immigrants to ICE for deportation on Tuesdays.
The protest and allegations about the detainees comes as Democratic officials who control the county jails where ICE detainees are held make moves toward ending their contracts with ICE. Essex County officials say they will stop accepting ICE detainees by August. In Hudson County —where Democrats last year signed a 10-year detention contract with ICE last year despite promises to end the deal—some elected officials are also considering ending the arrangement. And the landlord of a privately run ICE detention center in Elizabeth, NJ, is suing to get out of its lease.
In Bergen County, the decision to continue the ICE contract rests with Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton. He faced no challengers Tuesday in his Democratic primary for reelection, and his opponent in the general election is expected to be a Republican police chief who is under indictment and suspended from the force.
Some advocates believe that if detention centers close, then ICE will punish the immigrants, most of whom have families and lawyers in the region, by sending the detainees to faraway facilities. Instead, these advocates say that ICE can, and should, release all detainees. Detainees who are released are often given ankle monitors to ensure they appear in court.
A bill moving through the state legislature would ban new ICE detention centers from opening in New Jersey, but it is unclear if it will be voted on before lawmakers’ summer recess.