Democratic officials in Hudson County, NJ, voted Tuesday night to continue to jail immigrants for the federal government, reversing a 2018 plan to phase out the contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and rejecting 10 hours of heated and universal opposition from residents.
More than 150 people dialed into a marathon virtual meeting to speak out against renewing the contract. Nobody spoke in favor over the course of the long hearing, other than the county legislators, known as freeholders, who voted in favor, 6 to 3. They said the county depended on the revenue—$120 per day, per immigrant.
The vote gives county executive Tom DeGise, the Democrat who pushed the plan, something of a blank check to negotiate the terms of a 10-year contract extension. About 100 ICE detainees are currently housed at the county jail, but the facility can hold hundreds more—especially notable since ICE is seeking more bed space in the region.
“Renewing makes you malicious, or complicit— neither offers redemption,” Gary Springarn, a county resident, told the freeholders. “You will carry that weight for the rest of your lives. You failed the great responsibilities that come with your power. Your legacies will fade into obscurity.”
Added opponent Michael Watson, “History will remember you as monsters.”
Listen to Matt Katz’s report on WNYC:
Through tears and with raised voices, residents spoke of their concerns about both the county jail where the detainees are held (in 2017 and 2018, six inmates died in a nine-month period) and about ICE in general (the caging of children at the border and reports of forced hysterectomies). Former detainees alleged sexual abuse at the Kearny facility. Residents also noted that Hudson County skews heavily Democratic, and is exceptionally diverse—43 % are foreign born.
In 2018, residents, immigration activists, and former detainees protested the county’s continuing effort to detain immigrants for ICE, which has increasingly jailed those without criminal records under the Trump administration. DeGise announced a “path to exit” the contract by the end of 2020, which stemmed the outrage.
That path to exit, county spokesman Jim Kennelly said before Tuesday’s meeting, was “contingent” on filling the jail beds with prisoners from other law enforcement agencies. But a plan to hold inmates for Mercer County, NJ, is held up in court. And while the jail did bring in additional federal and state inmates, he said, it wasn’t enough.
Plus, Kennelly said, given the loss in public revenue due to the pandemic, county taxes would increase too much without the ICE funds. “To simply end this at this moment is going to have a negative effect on this year’s bottom line,” he said.
Kennelly did not provide a financial analysis of how much taxes would be raised if the contract was cancelled. He said total revenue — not including expenses, like corrections officer salaries—is at least $3.5 million. But at the current ICE rate, that would assume the detainee population actually increases next year under the Biden Administration.
Kennelly said that DeGise, who did not attend the meeting, could terminate the contract at any time if the county finds other ways of securing revenue.
Alina Das, co-director of an immigrant rights clinic at NYU Law, said eliminating the number of prison beds available to ICE would have meant fewer arrests of local immigrants. “Holding open these beds is simply an invitation to ICE to fill up the beds and justify their detention budgets,” she said.
But Hudson County officials have long argued that if the contract was cancelled, the men and women held at the jail would be transferred to distant jails, far from their families and attorneys. Detainees from New York City are eligible for free legal representation, which they could lose if they were sent elsewhere.
“If we opt to end the contract, how is that going to help the individual client to prosecute his case with the immigration authorities?” asked Freeholder Albert Cifelli, who voted for the contract. He said he recently met with detainees at the facility who were “fearful” and “anxious” about where they would go if the jail closed.
While Kennelly claimed that privately, immigration attorneys told county administrators that they want to keep the contract, publicly attorneys from the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project did not take a position.
One of the attorneys representing immigrants at the jail, Sophia Gurulé, addressed the board as a representative of her legal aid attorneys’ union. She said her clients complained of being locked in their cells for 23 ½ hours a day, “which is solitary confinement and amounts to torture.” She said there are “cells that have feces on the wall,” and “medical care is regularly denied.”
“They have literally starved themselves to get you to pay attention,” Gurulé said, referring to past hunger…