Four Democratic congressmen touring an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Elizabeth, N.J. on Wednesday were confronted by frustrated protesters accusing the lawmakers of describing a problem without prescribing a way to fix it.

“We clearly have a broken immigration system that has been exacerbated by three factors,” said U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn after a 2 ½ tour that included meetings with asylum seekers locked up inside. “One, a broken process. Two, a xenophobic policy. Three, an out-of-control president.”

But as the congressmen talked to the press, protesters interjected. One yelled: “What are you doing to shut this place down?” Earlier the protesters marched from the ICE prison, which is run by a private company, to a nearby warehouse for Amazon, which likewise contracts with ICE.

"We're over it. We're done. We need people to act. We need people to care," said activist Josette Grippo, who arrived on a bus with Rockaway Women for Progress in Queens.
She said the yelling during the press conference was a show of frustration because ICE opponents just don’t know what else to do any more.

"It's unbelievable that you can have 1.5 million protesters in Hong Kong every single day that are saying their government is oppressing them and we're sitting back as Americans and we're not doing enough together to basically say what's happening is travesty. This president is making a mockery of our Constitution. He has ripped apart the American dream."

Listen to reporter Matt Katz's segment for WNYC:

Democratic congressional delegations often tour and stage events at the ICE detention facility in Elizabeth. It makes for an easy target: A former warehouse, the facility is run by a private prison company, CoreCivic. But in fact the vast majority of New York and New Jersey immigrants who are arrested by ICE end up in publicly-run county jails in Essex, Hudson and Bergen counties. These local governments in overwhelmingly Democratic counties earn millions of dollars a month in revenue through lucrative contracts with ICE, and hold far more immigrants than the prison in Elizabeth.

Each of those counties with ICE detention contracts are run entirely by Democrats, making the issue politically problematic for Democratic officials. Even though the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark was recently slammed by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general for its deplorable conditions, none of the four Democrats who visited Elizabeth—U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Jeffries, Gregory Meeks and Adriano Espaillat of New York—would commit to even visiting the jails. None of the four said they would ask their fellow Democrats to end the ICE contracts or improve conditions at the jails, which include a recent allegation of sexual assault in Essex reported by WNYC.

However, U.S. Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey, who was in Elizabeth but left before the tour, said he had written a letter asking the Hudson County Jail to end its relationship with ICE. Officials there voted last year to cease ICE detentions by 2020.

Asked about the conditions at the county jails, Pallone said that wasn’t what he was interested in looking into, because facilities could temporarily fix conditions in advance of a congressional visit. He was more immediately concerned with the crackdown on immigrants seeking asylum, and he was in Elizabeth “to get an opportunity to talk to these guys” in detention.

“This president and his administration are making it virtually impossible for people to seek political asylum,” Pallone said. “These people who are in this detention center—they’re not coming here for economic reasons. They’re being persecuted. They’re being treated violently.”

Meeks said he was willing to go to other ICE facilities, adding that he was planning to visit a detention center for children on Long Island. “I don’t care if you’re a Democrat, independent, if you’re treating people in an inhumane way it is wrong,” he said.

The congressmen said that inside the Elizabeth facility they were given an opportunity to talk to men and women from across the world who are seeking asylum but waiting as long as a year to see a judge. They blamed Trump Administration policies that lead to the imprisonment of asylum seekers and a backlog in immigration courts.

“These were not rapists. These were not criminals. These were folks fleeing violence,” Espaillat said. He said food and translation services at the detention centers should be improved—a point that protesters immediately mocked as insufficient.

As an aide to Jeffries drove him away after the press conference, one constituent, Andy Ratto, blocked his path. “What’s the plan, congressman?” he asked. “Congressman are you gonna shut this place down?”

After a brief standoff and a threat of arrest, Ratto walked off and got on the bus back to New York.

Matt Katz reports on air at WNYC about immigration, refugees and national security.
You can follow him on Twitter at @mattkatz00.