Just as it faces the possibility of seeing two immigration detention centers close in New Jersey, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is scouting for new detention centers near Manhattan and Newark, worrying advocates who say more immigrants could soon be jailed in worse settings.
“We need to look at this as them attempting to have ways to cage more people,” said Katy Sastre, outreach coordinator for the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “There’s a financial incentive for having people fill those beds. That’s how counties get paid; that’s how private contractors get paid.”
Sastre said that since this announcement comes just before the election, ICE may be looking to lock in more beds for detainees on the presumption President Trump wins a second term, and carries out a promise to go after so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions, like New York and New Jersey, with more arrests of undocumented immigrants.
Sastre said that even if Trump loses, new detention contracts could still be signed by the time former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, is inaugurated. Some ICE contracts have minimum population requirements, meaning ICE pays for beds regardless of whether they’re used. Besides, a potential Biden Administration might not simply and quickly turn off the spigot that sends immigrants to available beds.
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“We can’t trust that because there’s a change in administration that everything is all of a sudden going to be completely different for our immigrant neighbors,” Sastre said. “I think we need to understand that this is a systemic issue in this country where, regardless of the type of cage, we are really interested in incarcerating and detaining people and locking them up.”
According to federal Request For Information documents, which are issued to gauge interest of contractors before making a Request For Proposal, ICE is exploring the creation of two new detention centers, each of which would have the capacity to house 850 men and 50 women. One would be in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, within 60 miles of Newark, and the other would be in New York or New Jersey, within 60 miles of ICE’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan.
ICE said its Requests For Information, which were first reported by The Record of Bergen County, does not mean it will issue a Request For Proposals to actually pursue new contracts. ICE’s office in Newark released this statement: “ICE is continually reviewing its detention requirements and exploring options that will afford ICE the operational flexibility needed to house the full range of detainees in the agency’s custody.”
ICE might be preparing for other detention centers in the New Jersey area to shut down as well. Two years ago, under pressure from a coalition of advocates over poor conditions for immigrants detained at its Hudson County jail, administrator Tom DeGise announced that the county would end its multimillion dollar detention contract with ICE by 2020. The county legislative body, the board of chosen freeholders, then affirmed that in a resolution.
But there are still ICE detainees at the jail. And in 2018 county officials left open the possibility that they could vote to extend the contract. A spokesman for DeGise didn’t return a request for comment about whether such a move could happen before the end of the year. And Anthony Vaneiri, the chairman of the freeholders, didn’t return an email.
But Freeholder Bill O’Dea said he thinks it’s possible that the all-Democrat board might renew the contract if Biden is president. Biden has vowed to handle immigration enforcement more humanely.
Hudson County is one of four counties in the area with lucrative contracts to jail immigrants awaiting hearings on immigration violations or deportation. Orange County in New York and Bergen County in New Jersey also jail immigrants from New York in the county jails.
The Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark holds immigrants from New Jersey, but its population plummeted by two-thirds since the coronavirus pandemic began, in part because many detainees have been deported while fewer arrests have taken place. Several dozen New Jersey detainees have also recently been transferred to the Bergen County jail, and ICE has not answered questions as to why. Detainees told Gothamist/WNYC they were not told why they were moved.
Meanwhile, a privately run ICE detention center in Elizabeth, NJ, which can hold roughly 300 detainees, is also supposed to shut down. Elberon Development Group, a company whose owners have deep philanthropic and political ties in the state, announced over the summer that it was terminating its lease with CoreCivic, the company that jails immigrants in a converted Elberon warehouse. But since Elberon released that statement under pressure from activists, it has ignored repeated questions about when, exactly, the lease will end. And on an earnings call with investors, CoreCivic indicated its lease with Elberon doesn’t actually expire until 2027, so it can continue to jail immigrants until then.
Many of those held at Elizabeth are asylum seekers who flew into the New York-area airports to seek protection from the United States government.
Although immigration advocates have long complained of abuses and inhumane conditions at Elizabeth and the county jails where immigrants are held, they note that they’re at least able to communicate with many of the officials who run the facilities. The three county jails in New Jersey are also run by Democratic administrations that are susceptible to political pressure. Advocates fear that detention conditions could be worse in more conservative New Jersey counties, like Morris or Monmouth, if public or private entities in those areas were to sign ICE contracts. In the same way, some immigration activists support keeping ICE detention centers at local jails, worrying that immigrants from New York and New Jersey could otherwise be shipped across the country, far from lawyers and loved ones.