Essex County no longer in ICE business, but activists hold their cheers

Immigrant advocates welcome the change, but want anti-detention bill signed

By: - August 19, 2021 6:50 am

The recent renewal of a contract between an Elizabeth detention center and ICE angered immigrant advocates. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

For 13 years, the Essex County jail that held undocumented immigrants was at the center of fiery protests and confrontations, both from activists protesting in the streets of Newark and the detainees staging hunger strikes inside.

Essex County Correctional Facility finally ceded to activists this year and cut its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Essex announced Tuesday the facility no longer holds federal immigration detainees.

Although the activists won this battle, they say now is not the time to rejoice.

“If anyone’s celebrating, they’ve missed the point or they’re celebrating for the wrong reasons,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.

What’s keeping activists from cheering the Essex decision is S3361, a bill that would ban new contracts and contract renewals for ICE detention centers in New Jersey. It’s been seven weeks since the Legislature passed the measure.

While activists urged Gov. Phil Murphy to sign the bill — he has said he’s supportive, but his aides note he can wait until November — ICE extended a contract with a private detention center in Elizabeth for another two years.

“This is a wake-up call to sign the bill,” said Chia-Chia Wang of Newark-based American Friends Service Committee, an advocacy group providing legal services for immigrants. “This is the moment for the governor to understand the devastating impact of detaining people for immigration purposes.”

Essex County officials announced in April they would depopulate ICE detainees, following intense pressure from immigrant advocates. The facility agreed to house Union County criminal suspects instead, and Essex officials said all 165 ICE detainees would be transferred out by Aug. 23.

The number of ICE detainees nationwide swelled under the Trump administration, shedding a new light on the controversial practice of detaining immigrants who haven’t been charged with crimes. In New Jersey, ICE arrests rose 42% in Trump’s first 100 days, and continued to rise until 2019, according to federal data.

Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo thanked ICE for its partnership and “professional working relationship” in a statement Tuesday.

“We have always maintained that this was in the best interest of the detainees to remain close to their family, friends, attorneys, and community organizations helping them in a facility that was safe and secure,” he said.

Advocates dispute that, saying immigrants formerly held at the facility have been transferred as far as Nevada, and no immigrant activists, family members, or lawyers were brought into the depopulation plans in helping transfer detainees out.

Torres described how some migrants were released and brought back into detention, while others faced multiple transfers. Immigrant groups and attorneys were mapping out where people were being transferred, and found some detainees held in Massachusetts.

“The fact that some people volleyed all over the place with no sort of clear plan is a testament to how little community advocates were brought into the process,” she said.

ICE officials confirmed the Essex County facility will no longer accept detainees but did not respond to other requests for comment. It’s unclear whether any people were released from detention entirely and it’s unknown where detainees were transferred.

Advocates continue looking for clarity

While Murphy waits to act on a bill banning ICE contracts, activists said they’re still looking for answers.

Confusion remains about where some detainees ended up, and immigrant groups believe they should all be released.

“There’s no reason for them to fight their deportation in detention when ICE has discretion to release them,” Wang said. “The further they are from us, the less likely they are to have due process, and that’s not even considering the conditions they’re kept in.”

And Torres said it’s still unclear if ICE and Essex County terminated their contract, or are instead depopulating federal detainees. She pointed to a recently-shuttered jail in Pennsylvania that recently announced it would begin re-open as an ICE detention center.

“(Essex County) is justifying this as a fiscal decision, to make room for people detained on behalf of Union County, and we reject that completely from a moral standpoint. So are they going to sever that ICE agreement, or are they keeping it open in hopes of ICE offering a better rate?” she said.

Essex County will bring in $11.3 million in revenue from Union County, offsetting the lost revenue from ICE, which paid as much as $120 per person daily to house ICE detainees in Newark. County jails in Bergen and Hudson counties housing ICE detainees also bring in millions in annual revenue, charging ICE as much as $120 per detainee daily.

Advocates have long claimed counties keep their contracts to pad their budgets. WNYC reported in 2019 that local officials viewed immigrants “as a source of revenue that helps control property taxes.”

Hera Mir, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said the Essex County statement makes her “sick to my stomach.”

“Whether with ICE or elsewhere in the mass incarceration system, the people in power are eager to use the caging of people of color and immigrants to justify a balanced budget,” Mir said.

Torres and Wang both stressed there’s been no mention of change of conditions inside the Newark jail, or of overhauling the criminal justice system to provide rehabilitation and services to inmates.

Backers of the anti-detention measure say they’re outraged Murphy hasn’t signed it yet, leaving the state wide open to new contracts for federal detainees, like CoreCivic in Elizabeth just did.

A Murphy spokeswoman has declined to comment on the bill, which passed the state Legislature ahead of the summer recess. The hundreds of bills on Murphy’s desk have a November deadline to be signed into law or vetoed.

“It makes no sense to me not to sign the bill immediately, because waiting until November invalidates all the intent that went into the bill,” Wang said. “He had plenty of opportunity to sign it in June. They decided not to act with urgency, so ICE did instead.”

Wang added that Murphy has said he supports the anti-detention bill in principle, but has never said why he has stalled in signing it.

“We need to know as a community that what we’re seeing in Elizabeth is hopefully the last time we see it, as a result of delaying signing this bill into law,” she said.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.