Bowing to pressure from activists, Hudson County announced Thursday that it will end its contract to hold federal immigration detainees at its jail in Kearny by 2020.
In a statement on Thursday, the county executive, Tom DeGise, announced that the county would initiate a “Path to Exit” from the contract that it hastily renewed in July to hold in custody detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, at the Hudson County Corrections and Rehabilitation Center. In doing so, the county joined a growing number of counties and cities that are distancing themselves from the Trump administration’s stepped-up enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws.
The announcement came as opponents of the contract, which the freeholders renewed in an unscheduled vote on July 12, were gathering for a protest in Liberty State Park in Jersey City, where the Hudson County Democrats were holding their annual gala. The protest was the latest in a series that had been held in recent weeks denouncing the agreement, under which the county could collect as much as $30 million or more annually.
County officials have said that the revenue from the agreement has helped the county avoid laying off corrections officers or raising taxes on residents.
DeGise said he planned to send a resolution to the county freeholders for a vote next week declaring that the current agreement with ICE cannot extend beyond the end of 2020 without the freeholders’ consent, but with a “goal of exiting sooner if all factors in transition are addressed.”
“The plan will also direct additional funds from the contract to be spent on services for ICE detainees during this transition period,’’ DeGise said in a statement. “Presently, free Legal Services are provided to all detainees for their civil detention cases.”
The Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale of the Reformed Church of Highland Park was stuck in traffic on his way to join the protest in Jersey City when he received a text message alerting him to the possible end to the contract.
He said it did not make sense to wait two years to end the agreement and that the protest would go on as planned.
“If the county is serious about doing the right thing, it should immediately end its contract with ICE and should say it will not receive any new immigrants from ICE immediately, ” he said. “But that it would allow ICE to continue to have its current inmates until their cases run their course. That would be an acceptable exit strategy.”
Rachael Yong Yow, an ICE spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Hudson County Freeholder William O’Dea, who voted against the renewal of the agreement because he wanted more time to review it, said there had been several discussions about an exit strategy, and called Thursday’s announcement a “positive step.” He said he would not vote for any extension beyond the two years.
“We wanted this discussion back in July, and it would have been better if that discussion took place then,” he said. “We are moving in the right direction.”
Earlier this year, Hudson County ended its participation in a program called 287 (g), which trained corrections officers to determine the immigration status of jail inmates and “flag” those held for serious offenses to federal authorities for possible deportation.The move came after years of criticism from members of the public and immigration advocates.
Sen. Bob Menendez welcomed the move. In a statement issued after the county’s announcement, he said ICE has become President Donald Trump’s deportation force and the “muscle behind his anti-immigrant policies that are tearing families apart, terrorizing immigrant communities and separating babies from their mothers.”
“The core problem is the Trump administration seeks to detain immigrants who pose no risk to our society,” he said. ” For so long as Trump’s policy doesn’t change we will have unjust detention.”
Gov. Phil Murphy, who was asked about contracts to house immigration detainees at county jails before Hudson County’s announcement on Thursday afternoon, said: “It’s a county decision but count me in on the side of the immigrant community, particularly in this administration. Period. Full stop.”
“And by the way ICE is an example — and there are so many examples to choose from so I shouldn’t say it’s the best example — it’s a very good example of how institutions have been politicized by this president. I served as U.S. ambassador to Germany. We had over 40 government agencies. ICE was one of them. With the proper civilian leadership, trust me, there is a reasonable mission that once happened.”
Asked if he saw any hint of hypocrisy by Democrats who fight the president tooth-and-nail on immigration but then profit off the administration’s policies, he said: “I’ll let others speak for themselves in a particular county. But there’s no hypocrisy here. We’re on the side of immigrants and we’re on the side of de-politicizing a government agency.”
The renewal of a contract
In July, the Hudson County freeholders voted 5-2 to extend its agreement with ICE to house detainees. Under the terms of the agreement, the county will receive $120 per detainee per day, an increase from $110 it received previously. The county was holding about 700 immigration detainees at the jail in July, according to figures provided by the county in response to an Open Public Records Request.
The resolution that the freeholders approved does not specify the period that the contract covers; it says only that the renewal of the “intergovernmental services agreement” with ICE will begin on Jan. 2, 2018, and will be valid for the “longest period of duration allowed by law.” The previous contract was for 15 years.
Last week, a group of religious leaders filed a lawsuit against the county freeholders, all of whom are Democrats, asking the court to void the vote to renew the agreement to detain immigrants. The plaintiffs alleged the freeholder board violated the state’s Sunshine Law when they voted two days after some of its members said they would wait until August to consider extending the agreement. The lawsuit claims the freeholders flouted their obligations under the law and voted to renew the contract in a process that “reeked of secrecy and deception.”
The Rev. Tom Murphy of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Jersey City, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said he hadn’t seen Thursday’s announcement when reached by phone, but he said he was “cautiously optimistic” and “encouraged.”
“It’s a sign that the freeholders were definitely feeling the pressure from the public that they opposed it and especially the way that they had renewed the contract,” he said.
In his statement, DeGise, the county executive, said Hudson County is spending more than $5 million to build a new infirmary complex at the jail, where federal immigration detainees have been held for more than 20 years.
“The amount and into what areas those dollars will go will be worked out in future meetings with the administration, members of the Freeholder Board and advocates for the detainees,’’ DeGise said.
DeGise said the decision came after weeks of meetings with staff members, freeholders, advocates and local and state federal officials who “could assist the county in making a successful transition.”
“Just a month ago, I did not see a path that would allow us to move forward on a path to exit,” he said. “I’m pleased that after what I have heard from state and federal leaders, I believe we have a consensus on how Hudson County can exit the contract in a responsible manner. “
Counties canceling ICE contracts
Earlier this year, Contra Costa County and Sacramento County in California canceled their contracts with ICE to hold immigration detainees, as did Alexandria, Virginia, and Springfield, Oregon.
“We think that is what should be happening all over the country, its a way to envision a world without detention,” Liz Martinez, director of advocacy for Freedom for Immigrants, a nonprofit working to abolish U.S. immigration detention. “It’s a shame that Democrats would support renewing these contracts when they are seeing on a national stage how the Trump administration wants to continue to expand detention. So they should be advocating for a humane solution and not continue to aggravate the problem.”
In some cases, she said, immigrants detained at facilities that closed were released on bond or with a monitoring device, and sometimes the detainees have been sent to other states.
Some have expressed concern about what will happen to the detainees once Hudson County closes its doors to them. They said that ICE is still going to detain immigrants, and will just send them to faraway places where their families can’t easily visit them.
In a statement, the Brooklyn Defender Services and Bronx Defenders, who represent detained immigrants, said that while they support the movement to abolish ICE, ending such contracts near large immigrant communities will do far more harm than good.
“We question whether directly impacted people were engaged in this decision,’’ they said in a joint statement. “Hudson County and other local governments have local control over jail contracts with ICE, but they do not have any control over what will happen to detained people if these contracts are terminated.”
Who will occupy the jail?
O’Dea, one of the freeholders who voted against the contract extension, said that the county is attempting to enter into other contracts that would allow it to fill beds that will be vacated once detainees are no longer held at the jail. Among the options, he said, is a prisoner re-entry program, where state inmates in their last 18 months of their sentences would be sent to the Hudson County jail, where they would receive job training and services to ease their transition once they are released.
“We are actively working with the county to bring in other contracts that will allow us to get out this sooner,” he said.” I think we are all going to focus on that.”
He said he wants the immigration detention program to be “no-profit” with all the money collected from the federal government being used for services for those detained.