Is This The End of Local ICE Detention? That’s Immigrants’ Hope—And Fear

In a win for immigration advocates, New Jersey lawmakers passed a bill Thursday to stop private and public entities from making deals with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to jail immigrants.

“The statewide ban would confirm the message that continues to be raised at the local level: profiting off of pain and family separation contradicts New Jersey values,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.

Immigration advocates hoped shutting down the multi-million-dollar contracts would prompt ICE to release the detainees to their families. But the proposed law, which now awaits Governor Phil Murphy’s signature, comes as the Biden Administration acts swiftly to move some detainees to detention facilities in other states—taking them farther away from relatives and their attorneys.

“From what we’re hearing, it’s horrifying and absolutely terrifying,”  said Sharone Schwartz Kaufman, the deputy attorney-in-charge from the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project at the Legal Aid Society. “People who are detained by ICE are taken without any notice to them or their attorneys. They’re not told where they’re going. They’re not told if they’re being put on a plane and being deported.”

While the detention numbers in New Jersey have dropped dramatically in recent months—there are about 300 from New York and New Jersey in the state’s four facilities—many detainees have been transferred to facilities in Alabama, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania.

Detainees who were transferred said they have had trouble maintaining contact with their attorneys and continuing the medical treatment they received at New Jersey facilities.

One Haitian immigrant who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation said on his way to a facility in Alabama he spent the night on the cold floor of a cell in Louisiana, sharing a toilet with three other detainees. He was moved weeks ago and has yet to speak to an ICE officer about why he was transferred. His attorney is unable to contact him via video conference or private phone line.

Immigration attorneys’ fear now is that without detention centers in New Jersey—which in the past have held as many as 2,000 immigrants from both New Jersey and New York under conditions widely criticized as deplorable—ICE will simply transfer local immigrants far away from their families and attorneys.

There is now a possibility that New York and New Jersey immigrants will no longer be housed in the New York City region. The next closest ICE facility is in Orange County, over 60 miles away from the city.

In a May 27th meeting, New Jersey ICE field office director John Tsoukaris told publicly funded attorneys who represent detained immigrants that detainees are being moved out of the state before they can access state-funded legal services, according to the ACLU of New Jersey. A spokesman for Tsoukaris had no comment. A letter of complaint that the ACLU sent to the Department of Homeland Security went unanswered.

And in New York, at least 22 detainees who are represented for free by attorneys with the New York Immigration Family Unity Project have been moved to jails around the country since the start of the Biden Administration, attorneys told Gothamist/WNYC. While transfers are not unusual, the rate of detainee transfers is unprecedented, they said. They wrote a letter to ICE officials, including New York field office director Thomas Decker, but ICE did not respond. Decker’s spokesman had no comment.

In interviews, three detainees who were transferred from New Jersey described the trauma of the experience. They’re awakened at 4 a.m. and told they’re leaving New Jersey to parts unknown—ICE won’t tell them where they’re going for “security reasons,” they said.

Shackled at the wrists and ankles, they’re flown to detention centers without all of their personal items, like legal paperwork they need to fight their deportation cases. One lawyer lost touch with a client for two weeks after a transfer. Others haven’t gotten the medication they need at the new facilities.

Transfers have also been linked to Covid outbreaks among immigrants. 

It is unclear what the reason is for the rise in transfers, which attorneys liken to people being “disappeared.” But a detainee who was transferred from the Hudson County jail said an ICE officer told him that all ICE detainees were moving out by the end of July. Some advocates told Gothamist that they believe ICE has been preparing to shut down ICE detention in the state—given the political pressure and pending legislative ban on contracts—by starting to depopulate the facilities.

Those detained by ICE are not charged with crimes; they are held to ensure that they show up for immigration court hearings and deportation flights. Those who are released while their cases wind their way through the court system, which can take years, are often fitted with electronic ankle bracelets.

Advocates have levied enormous political pressure against local ICE jailers over the last few years—at government meetings, protests outside the jail, and in calls to politicians. They want ICE to release all of those in its custody on ankle bracelets, and they want local governments to stop subsidizing their budgets by holding ICE detainees for years on end for a daily rate of as much as $120-per-detainee.   

In recent months, the activists have had a noticeable effect, as local Democrats who run the county jails and contract with ICE no longer have the stomach to endure the criticism.

In Bergen County, where protests outside the jail have led to clashes with police, Democratic Sheriff Anthony Cureton is no longer accepting new ICE detainees, a spokesperson said.

In Hudson County—which just last year inked a 10-year renewal with ICE —there is a new 50-person cap on ICE detainees, according to County Commissioner Bill O’Dea, and officials are looking to house criminally charged individuals from elsewhere in the state so it can cancel the ICE contract and make up for lost revenue. Essex County has already announced that by August, it will no longer jail immigrants.

Meanwhile the landlord for a privately-run detention center in Elizabeth, NJ, is suing to break its lease, saying the conditions inside the facility are unsafe. If these four facilities close, that would leave detainees with no other facility in the New York City-New Jersey region; the next closest would be the Orange County Jail in upstate New York.

As advocates pushed for the closure of these detention centers the last couple of years, some immigration lawyers warned of unintended consequences—that these immigrants would likely be moved to far away jails, away from their families and attorneys, instead of being released. Now, that’s exactly what appears to be happening.

Activists’ ultimate dream is for ICE to stop detaining undocumented immigrants while they fight their immigration cases, as was common in the United States before the 1990s. But that’s not something Biden, who has the ultimate say over the detainees’ fate, apparently agrees with.

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