Future ICE detention contracts banned by N.J. law

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bill after he returned from vacation

By: - August 20, 2021 2:47 pm
Governor Phil Murphy signing a bill

The new law expands New Jersey’s existing anti-discrimination statute to protect older employees. (Photo by Fran Baltzer for the New Jersey Monitor)

Private and public New Jersey facilities are barred from signing contracts to imprison federal immigrant detainees under a new law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy Friday.

Immigrant organizations, attorneys, and family members have advocated for years to end the lucrative business of immigrant detention in the Garden State. Murphy signed the bill quietly, without the fanfare he reserves for other bills he supports.

The law prohibits state and local governments and private facilities from renewing or entering into new contracts for detention centers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. New Jersey is now the fifth state to limit or ban immigration detention.

“This win has been a long time coming, not just for immigrants in New Jersey but for every family separated by detention. Our state now joins the handful of others who are spearheading the fight to end ICE detention nationwide,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.

The bill won’t terminate existing ICE contracts, like the ones in Hudson County, which was recently extended for 10 years, and Bergen County, which does not have an end date. It also does not apply to a recently extended contract with a private Elizabeth detention center.

Although the bill moved swiftly through the Legislature and landed on Murphy’s desk ahead of the summer recess, he delayed signing the measure. While he vacationed in Italy with his family, CoreCivic in Elizabeth renewed its contract with ICE until August 2023.

“The people inside are the ones being impacted by the delay,” said Chia-Chia Wang of the American Friends Service Committee. “I can only say it’s a hard lesson learned, but I don’t know if that can fully describe the real hardships people face inside.”

Murphy administration officials declined to comment.

Over the years, hundreds of migrants have been held at the facilities, reportedly in deplorable conditions. Detainees wait there for court hearings and face possible deportation. Numbers swelled when Donald Trump became president.

The facilities have sparked protests in the streets, late-night demonstrations at the homes of elected officials, and detainee hunger strikes.

Until recently, the Democrats who run Bergen, Essex, and Hudson counties defended the controversial practice, which allowed the counties to rake in millions by charging ICE as much as $120 daily per detainee.

But the Democrats’ formerly staunch support has started to wane. In April, Essex County said it would cut its contract with ICE — and announced Monday all immigrant detainees have been transferred out of its Newark jail. Bergen and Hudson officials hinted they would also be open to finding new streams of revenue and terminating their contracts.

ICE officials did not immediately respond to request for comment. Bergen, Hudson and Elizabeth officials also did not respond.

Advocates continue fighting for more

While activists are finally claiming victory in this battle, they say there are still steps for New Jersey officials to take if they want the state to be a leader for immigrants.

Wang said she’s still concerned about the hardships immigrants are facing in the three remaining facilities. With the Delta variant of COVID-19 on the rise, she worries about increasing infection rates inside the jails.

She called for all New Jersey ICE contracts to be terminated.

“We don’t have a timeline. Nobody — not even county government — knows when these immigration contracts will end,” she said, pointing to Bergen County’s indefinite contract.

Torres said in her statement that activists will continue fighting to free all held in immigrant detention centers, “and call for an end to the cruelties of the prison industrial complex.”

Wang added that President Biden should end deportations. More than 26,000 immigrants are currently being held in 131 federal detention centers nationwide.

Tania Mattos, a policy manager with Freedom for Immigrants, said Biden should “build on the momentum of this victory and release the remaining immigrants in the New Jersey facilities.”

“By directing ICE to conduct releases rather than transfers, President Biden can be on the right side of history and work to help, not hinder, the progress New Jersey communities and lawmakers have made,” she added.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, 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.