Bergen County Commissioners did not comment on the change. (Courtesy of Bergen County)
After years of hunger strikes and fiery protests, Bergen County’s controversial, indefinite contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold undocumented immigrants at its jail has come to an end.
Bergen County Commissioners approved the move at their Wednesday meeting, giving federal authorities 45 days to transfer the 23 remaining detainees — 22 men and one woman — from the county’s Hackensack jail.
Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton, a Democrat seeking re-election next month, called the action “the right way to move forward.”
“Having seen federal enforcement priorities change and large fluctuations in the number of detainees in the jail, it is no longer the county’s best interest to continue housing ICE detainees,” Cureton said.
Bergen was the last domino to fall in New Jersey, where Democratic officials who run the three county jails that until recently had held thousands of ICE detainees have opted to sever their contracts with the immigration agency. Liberal activists started pushing the officials to stop working with ICE during the Trump administration, when deportation arrests soared.
That pressure led Gov. Phil Murphy to sign a law in August banning public and private entities from entering into or renewing contracts to jail immigrant detainees.
Essex County announced in April it would empty its Newark jail of ICE detainees, and Hudson County followed suit in September. A privately run facility in Elizabeth, CoreCivic, has an ICE contract that will expire in 2023.
Bergen County’s ICE arrangement dates to 2001, when the county entered into a pact with the U.S. Marshals Service that allowed ICE to “piggyback” on the contract, Cureton said in his statement. It had no end date.
The jail housed thousands of immigrants over more than two decades while the county raked in millions by charging ICE as much as $120 per person daily. In 2018, Bergen County brought in $17 million.
But ICE-related revenue is expected to hit just $4.5 million this year as the number of migrant inmates dwindled, largely due to the Biden administration not prioritizing detaining migrants, plus the coronavirus pandemic. The county sheriff also capped the number of detainees at two dozen.
That revenue will be replaced by money from a new contract with the Marshals Service to hold as many as 175 federal inmates awaiting trial or transferred after sentencing, for $125 per person daily, plus a $35 hourly rate to transport the inmates. None of those can be ICE detainees, per the new agreement.
Cureton said he had been mulling whether to sever the contract over the past three years, and is “confident” this new contract will replace the stream of revenue.
Ahead of the commissioners meeting, County Executive Jim Tedesco, a Democrat, released a statement commending Cureton for the “important step forward.”
“This is yet one more example of our joint commitment to expand shared services for the benefit of our taxpayers, while protecting the safety and security of our residents, and we both look forward to exploring future opportunities with our neighboring counties,” he said.
Advocates rejoice, but call for releases from inhumane jail
The decision may have been spurred by the new state law and the county’s need to replace decreasing ICE revenue, but advocates maintain their nonstop pressure, including nightly vigils and protests at the homes of powerful officials, led to ICE’s shrinking presence in the Garden State.
“It’s a direct response to organizing,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “But all it took was political will to end it, which is really damning in and of itself. They could’ve chosen to end it at any time, and they’ve chosen now.”
Banan Abdelrahman, campaign coordinator with the American Friends Service Committee, said she is “happy to hear that Bergen is shutting down, but fearful for the people inside.”
Cureton said in his statement that he’s heard “persuasive arguments” from advocates to keep some terms of the contract so detainees aren’t transferred to facilities far from their families and attorneys. Activists argue the county should release them.
Abdelrahman said Bergen County operates a “horrendous jail” home to racism and medical negligence. Dozens of detainees have gone on several hunger strikes over conditions inside, most recently in June.
The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project also pointed out “deplorable and inhumane conditions,” including subjecting inmates to freezing temperatures and excessive time in solitary confinement. The coalition of lawyers joined New Jersey organizations in calling for the immediate release of Bergen County detainees, as well as all remaining immigrants at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny.
Hudson County is in the process of exiting its 10-year contract after approving a re-entry program to plug the revenue hole. Migrants will be transferred or released from the jail within 45 days, but officials did not respond to requests for how many detainees are still held.
Although immigrant advocates have finally won the battle for New Jersey counties to stop holding migrants, Torres said, there’s still much more work to be done nationwide.
“This is not the final fight. When we were facing fights at the local level, we took it to Trenton and won. We should expect that fight to continue so our congressional leaders and federal government feels the same heat we’ve been bringing all along,” she said. “We’re long overdue for change.”
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