Protesters rally in front of Bergen County Jail in Hackensack on Oct. 27, 2021. (Fran Baltzer for New Jersey Monitor)
Jean Ismael Bien Aime Nicolas sits in the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, where he’s been held since 2018.
Some time in the next few days, he’ll likely be transferred to a facility hundreds of miles away as the jail begins depopulating migrant detainees.
The Haitian man said he expects his case will be reviewed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but he is not hopeful the review will go his way.
“We expect to be denied, then we expect to be transferred,” he said, “But we pray none of these things happen.”
He was speaking by phone to a crowd of protesters gathered on South River Road outside the jail, where Bergen County has for two decades kept immigrant detainees behind bars in exchange for millions in revenue from the federal government.
Nicolas expressed uncertainty over how much the rally will help the remaining 21 detainees, even as advocates chanted, “Releases, not transfers!”
Roughly 30 protestors, religious leaders, and activists held up signs reading, “Our friends are still in cages,” and “It’s not over until everyone is free.” For more than an hour, they stood on the side of the busy road demanding ICE release the remaining migrants.
Bergen County has about a month to move all detained immigrants out of the jail. Advocates expect some of them will be moved to the Batavia, New York, facility five hours away as soon as Thursday.
The inmates are being transferred as the Bergen County Jail severs its long-standing contract with ICE, replacing it with a new agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service to hold up to 175 federal inmates who are awaiting trial or have been transferred after sentencing.
All three publicly run federal immigration holding centers in New Jersey have ended their contracts in the wake of a law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy banning new or renewed contracts with ICE. Murphy signed the law after years of protests by immigrant advocates who challenged the Democrats who run Bergen, Essex, and Hudson counties to stop taking money from ICE.
As of Nov. 1, Hudson County officials say there will be no more detained migrants in the local facility. Essex County stopped housing immigrants in August. Bergen County was the last of the three to say they’d halt ICE detention.
An ICE detention center in Elizabeth, a privately-run facility, renewed its contract with ICE this summer until 2023.
Kathy O’Leary, organizer of Pax Christi NJ, a religious organization fighting for immigrant rights, said supporters of the new law need to ensure the jails stop holding detainees “the right way.”
“Stop relying on a carceral economy,” she said about the counties seeking out lucrative deals with ICE.
She added, “Hudson County jail is no place for people to be rehabilitated.”
Although there’s cause for celebration as the long-fought battle of halting counties from jailing ICE detainees has been won, families and lawyers of detainees are worried the agency will keep them locked up, far from the help they need. They want detainees to be released and await their cases at home under ICE supervision.
“The struggles continues,” said the Rev. Petero Sabuna, a New York City pastor who was a refugee from Uganda in the 1980s. “We need to make sure we’re going where these people need us. Even if it’s hundreds of miles away, we will visit.”
Stories from immigrants
Sabuna shared the powerful story of his nephew, who was deported to Uganda in 2016, 35 years after arriving in the United States at the age of 11. America was the only place he knew to be his home, Sabuna said.
Sabuna’s nephew was picked up by ICE officers while visiting Pennsylvania and was held in the York facility. Because he was unable to prove he was afraid to go back to the African country, he was deported back.
“This is a county of immigrants,” Sabuna said. “When you are persecuted in your country, America is the land of freedom. All of us yearn to be as free as Lady Liberty talks about.”
Another protester displayed the picture of the wife and children of Romeo Konneh, an ICE detainee in Bergen’s jail. Konneh has spent three years in the Bergen and Essex jails, and still has never met his young daughter.
Ernest Francois, a Haitian migrant picked up by ICE in 2017, described his time in ICE facilities as “brutal,” but said many of the worst experiences happened outside New Jersey. He was transferred seven times in 10 months, bouncing around from Florida to Texas to Georgia and back to New Jersey.
Francois claimed he was neglected by doctors while behind bars, and in Florida faced retaliation for participating in peaceful protests. On May 3, in Bergen County, he said two officers came into his pod and pushed him to the ground after a tense exchange of words.
An officer placed his knee on his back and neck, Francois said, and with a mask on, he couldn’t breathe. He was handcuffed while passed out, he said, adding that he was never noted for an infraction and had not gotten into any fights, but still was forced into solitary confinement over 15 times.
“I didn’t think I was going to come out,” he said.
He added, “The guys in there, they’re jumping around right now, they’re happy ’cause they see us. I know because I was one of those guys in there.”
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