Forming a new group, N.J.’s immigrant advocates fight for release of migrant detainees

By: - September 27, 2021 6:52 am

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

A Bergen County detainee who was woken up in the middle of the night to be flown to Arizona.  A Haitian migrant who was transferred from detention center to detention center seven times over four years. An Essex County resident who was detained while his wife was pregnant, and didn’t meet his child for two years.

A coalition of advocates is shining a light on the stories of undocumented immigrants who suffered while imprisoned in New Jersey’s immigration detention facilities, part of an effort to urge support for ending immigrant detainee transfers and for an overhaul for federal immigration laws.

“We have seen how families have been ripped apart, especially in the last few months once Essex County announced they would be depopulating their ICE unit,” said Jackie Zapata with Friends First of NJ & NY. “Our friends who called New Jersey their home were transferred to faraway states, far away from their communities, families, and legal resources.”

Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law last month banning state, county, and local detention centers from entering into or renewing contracts to hold immigrant detainees. Now, as the detention centers  empty, activists are pushing for more prisoners to be released rather than transferred to other locations.

Activists are concerned that, as has happened in the past, detainees will be moved to states on the other side of the country, leaving their families to wonder where they are for weeks, if not months. Some of them view the long-distance transfers as retaliation from the immigration agency.

Now the coalition of faith leaders, advocates, formerly incarcerated people, and their family members have formed the Interfaith Campaign for Just Closures. The group aims to push New Jersey’s congressional delegation to support HR 536, which would revamp the immigration detention system.

The bill would bar the Department of Homeland Security from entering and renewing contracts to operate detention centers, remove mandatory detention for certain migrants like asylum seekers, and prohibit state and local officers from apprehending immigrants. It’s supported by just one New Jersey representative, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12), and has not been introduced in the Senate.

“Senator Booker, (who) considers himself a champion for criminal justice reform and immigration issues, would be a great candidate to introduce this bill. Senator Menendez is a champion of immigrant rights issues for so many years, and should be a leading voice in the Senate for HR 536,” said Carlos Rojas Rodriguez, an organizer with Immigrant Justice Network leading the New Way Forward campaign.

Menendez has referred to ICE contracts as “blood money” for counties and states, alluding to the revenue that pours into local coffers from the federal agency.

Sen. Bob Mendendez speaking
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez has previously condemned New Jersey officials for continuing contracts with ICE. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Last week, the senators released a statement urging ICE to end out-of-state transfers for detainees, and requesting all detainees who do not fall “under the current enforcement prioritization scheme” to be released.

“Not only do transfers expose detainees to COVID-19, but they also threaten the physical, mental, and emotional health of detained individuals. Any form of detention is a traumatic experience, especially among immigrant detainees who are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder both during and after detention than the general population,” they said in a letter to ICE officials.

Zapata said the statement doesn’t go far enough. All detainees should be released, she said, rather than leaving it up to ICE to decide who is a priority and who isn’t.

“This shows how harsh our current system is” 

During an event Thursday, the faith leaders, advocates, and family members of detainees shared powerful tales of loved ones traumatized by detention.

Zapata told the story of an undocumented man who lost 52 pounds after he was transferred from Essex County Jail to a Nevada prison. He was finally released, then met his 2-year-old daughter, who was born while he was jailed, she said.

“If that’s not a way of playing with someone’s life, I don’t know what is. This shows how harsh our current system is,” she said.

Bia Kamara spoke about his son, Alex, an asylum seeker from Sierra Leone who was detained in 2019 in North Jersey. He was transferred to Arizona, then Miami, where he’s currently being held, and faces deportation to the country he tried to escape.

“Don’t even consider sending him to Sierra Leone, because that will be as good as sending him to his death bed. There’s nobody there he knows, he doesn’t know where to start — you put him there and it’s taking a fish out of water and putting the fish on dry land,” Kamara said.

Though Essex County has emptied its jail of detainees and Hudson County said it intends to do the same, there are no similar plans for Bergen County Jail, which remains home to 25 immigrant detainees largely from New York. The county has an indefinite contract with ICE, and advocates are pressing Bergen officials to sever it. The county brings in $120 per detainee daily from ICE.

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

“In a blue county in a blue state, there’s nobody that the county commissioners and sherriffs can blame other than themselves,” said Jon Moscow, co-chair of Northern NJ Sanctuary Coalition. “They seem to deflect responsibility to each other.”

Moscow said one of the goals of the new group is to continue to pressure officials to close the state’s last publicly-run immigrant holding center.

“The reality is this is a Democrat’s state,” said Moscow. “If Governor Murphy, Senator Booker, Senator Menendez, our congressional representatives unite and say it’s time for this to end, and the way to end it is not transfers, but going back to their community, it would happen.”

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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.