The Elizabeth detention center at the center of a legal fight has "a horrible record over time," Sen. Menendez said. (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)
U.S. Sen Bob Menendez is condemning the Biden administration’s move to side with a private detention operator in the company’s legal fight against a state law that bans contracts for immigrant detention.
The administration is “making the wrong decision to support continuing private detention facilities when they don’t meet the high standards of the federal government,” Menendez said Monday.
Menendez — one of the loudest Democratic critics of President Biden’s immigration policies — has long raised concerns about the Elizabeth prison that is at the center of the lawsuit. In the 1990s, detainees rioted against the inhumane conditions and abuse they suffered at the hands of guards there.
“I think these private detention facilities are fundamentally wrong. I don’t think they uphold high standards. When we detain someone by the power of the federal government … we are also responsible for that human being, and the (Elizabeth) detention facility has a horrible record over time,” Menendez told the New Jersey Monitor.
CoreCivic, which runs the Elizabeth facility, is challenging the 2021 state law that bans public and private entities from contracting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain immigrants. The company argues that the law is unconstitutional and is asking a judge to prevent the state from enforcing it.
In a legal filing last week, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed with CoreCivic and argued that shuttering the Elizabeth center would be “catastrophic” for immigration enforcement.
The Elizabeth Detention Center is the last operational ICE detention facility in the state. In the days before Gov. Phil Murphy signed the 2021 law, CoreCivic renewed its contract with ICE through Aug. 31, 2023. If the judge overseeing the case doesn’t keep New Jersey from enforcing that law, CoreCivic has argued in court, then it cannot renew its pact with ICE.
Menendez’s son, Rep. Rob Menendez (D-08), issued a statement last week calling for the permanent closure of the facility, saying it is “severely incompatible with the values and wishes of our communities.”
“I am deeply concerned about the inhumane conditions and cases of neglect and abuse against immigrants in this facility. As a country, we cannot accept an immigration system that fails to live up to our American values,” Rep. Menendez said.
Before the 2021 law, three New Jersey counties — Essex, Bergen, and Hudson — held contracts with ICE to detain immigrants in their county jails, contracts that were criticized at the time by Sens. Menendez and Cory Booker, a Democrat. All three counties announced in 2021 that they would no longer house immigrant detainees, announcements made after years of protests by immigrant advocates.
Menendez and Booker later penned a letter to ICE officials urging authorities to release some detainees rather than transfer them to out-of-state facilities where they are far away from legal counsel and their families.
At an unrelated event Monday, Booker said he had “a lot of thoughts” on the Elizabeth detention center but declined to get more specific.
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