As ICE detention centers shutter, immigrant advocates eye Bergen County’s jail

Bergen has an indefinite contract with the federal agency to house immigrant detainees

By: - September 14, 2021 6:52 am

The number of immigrant detainees at the Bergen County Jail has dwindled to about 25. (Courtesy of Bergen County)

Ten years ago, New Jersey had space in a quartet of detention centers for thousands of immigrant detainees arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcment.

Now, years of protests by immigrant advocates has helped diminish the federal agency’s presence in New Jersey’s public jails.

On Nov. 1, Hudson County says they will be out of the business of detaining migrants for ICE, less than a year after renewing its controversial contract for a decade. And Essex County cleared its jail of immigrant detainees in August to make room for inmates from a neighboring county.

That leaves just Bergen County, where a jail in Hackensack is home to 25 detainees largely from New York. Signed in 1997, the agreement allowing for the state’s last publicly run immigration detention center doesn’t have an end date. A new New Jersey law bans entities from entering into or renewing contracts that allow for the detention of immigrants, but Bergen’s unusual pact raises questions about whether it can remain open indefinitely.

“The contract continues to haunt us in New Jersey, but I believe Bergen County will move in the right direction,” said Chia-Chia Wang, organizing and advocacy director of the American Friends Service Committee. “Thinking bigger picture, this is the right time that we release people rather than detain them indefinitely.”

Bergen County Commissioner Mary Amoroso, a Democrat, said “conversations are ongoing,” but there’s no specific plan to replace the stream of revenue brought into county coffers by ICE. Undocumented immigrants held at the jail bring in as much as $120 per person per day. That amounted to roughly $17 million in 2018, but this year the county is budgeting just $4.5 million.

Amoroso noted the county sheriff has capped the number of detainees at the jail at about two dozen.

A spokesman for the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office referred questions to the Bergen County Jail, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“It’s only a matter of time, but this is a critical time where we should be doing everything we can to save lives,” Wang said.

In the past several years, immigrant advocates have fought to end the lucrative contracts with ICE. Activists blocked major roads in Newark near the Essex County detention center, held late-night protests in front of the Hudson County executive’s home, and faced arrest in Bergen County while calling attention to inmate hunger strikes. 

Supporters of the New Jersey law, which affects private and public detention centers, are calling for immigrant detainees to be released, not transferred.

Sara Cullinane, executive director of Make the Road New Jersey, an advocacy organization for Latino immigrants, said the news from Hudson is welcome, but added the focus needs to be on cutting “funding for detention across the board on a federal level.”

In December, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, both New Jersey Democrats, condemned Hudson County commissioners’ decision to renew their contract with ICE, referring to the revenue as “blood money.” The county brought in $20.5 million from ICE in 2019, and expected to bring in $17.5 million in 2020.

“If ICE has the funding, they will spend it anyway they want to try and maintain immigration detention at a certain level,” said Wang. “We need to urge Congress to not appropriate more funding and find other alternatives.”

Still, the activists agreed the historic moves in the Garden State — New Jersey is the first state on the East Coast to ban contracts for ICE detention — make the state a friendlier one for immigrants.

Wang stressed the lack of beds for detainees de-incentivizes ICE from conducting raids and arrests on immigrant communities, but said she fears the agency could find a way around the law and build a federal detention center.

“It may be a slim chance but it’s something we need to look out for, knowing there’s a possibility they find funds to build their own jail. That’s why it’s important for members of Congress to support less funding for enforcement and find a country without immigration detention,” 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.