The operators of Elizabeth's detention center say a 2021 state law barring it from renewing its contract with ICE is unconstitutional. (Getty Images)
The company that runs the last immigration detention center in New Jersey is suing Gov. Phil Murphy and Attorney General Matt Platkin over a 2021 law banning anyone from contracting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house immigrant detainees.
CoreCivic, which operates correctional facilities and detention centers nationwide, says the 2021 law — which bars all state, country, and local agencies, along with private detention facilities, from renewing, extending, or entering into new immigration detention agreements — is unconstitutional.
CoreCivic has a contract with ICE to house detainees in an Elizabeth jail through August. The company complains in the lawsuit, filed Friday in federal court, that New Jersey’s law violates the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which bars states from passing laws that nullify federal statutes.
“Because CoreCivic provides essentially the entire immigration detention capacity for the federal government in New Jersey,” the law would effectively shut down immigration detention in the state, CoreCivic argues in the suit.
Neither a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office nor CoreCivic responded to requests for comment on the lawsuit.
The Elizabeth detention center holds up to 300 people, employs about 100, and primarily houses those detained at ports of entry at airports in New York and Newark. It is unclear how many detainees are currently held there.
The Tennessee-based CoreCivic is the nation’s largest for-profit prison operator, managing more than 65 state and federal correctional and detention facilities around the country. It has been embroiled in legal battles over the years, including lawsuits over poor conditions and one filed by the Elizabeth building’s landlord seeking to end its lease.
The company entered an agreement with ICE for the Elizabeth Contract Detention Center in 2005 that has been renewed five times.
The facility, located on Evans Street just south of Newark’s airport, was previously a warehouse, and CoreCivic claims to have invested more than $7.5 million in converting and renovating it. If the center closes, the company predicts losing about $18 million over the next four years, along with the loss of turning the building into a detention center, the suit states.
The company notes in its complaint that federal immigration laws give ICE officials the power to arrange for detention centers while people are awaiting removal hearings.
And by barring the use of any detention facilities, ICE would have much less discretion on where immigration detainees can go, CoreCivic claims.
When Bergen County stopped housing ICE detainees in November 2021, migrants held there were sent across the country, frustrating advocates and worrying family members who had trouble locating their loved ones.
Immigrant advocates argue the true problem is that detention is still allowed to happen. Kathy O’Leary has pushed to end detention in New Jersey with Pax Christi, the local chapter of an international Catholic organization advocating for racial justice and equity.
“It’s a shame, but it wasn’t surprising. We expected that CoreCivic wasn’t going to go quietly,” O’Leary said.
For years, activists pressured Murphy and elected officials in counties with ICE contracts to stop cooperating with the federal agency. In August 2021, Essex County officials announced they would stop housing ICE detainees, and three months later, Hudson County officials did the same.
Pax Christi is planning its annual Ash Wednesday rally in Elizabeth this week.
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