As surrounding county jails begin to distance themselves from detaining immigrants on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Bergen County Jail has lagged.
In late April, neighboring Essex County announced that it would be ending its contract with ICE. In Hudson County, legislators and officials have publicly expressed that they would also be open to ending their contracts with the agency. Elberon Development Group, the developer that owns the building that houses the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility, is suing to break the lease.
Bergen County trails behind the other detention managers in showing signs of detaching themselves from ICE, though a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s office previously told NJ Spotlight at the end of April that the jail was not accepting ICE detainees.
On Wednesday, about ten protesters gathered outside the facility, holding signs and chanting to release the detainees, and opposing the transfers. Nearby cars and trucks honked in support of the demonstrators as the ralliers held up signs and flags. They were there in support of 20 detainees who began a hunger strike on Monday to call attention to what they call an unfair and prolonged detention and to demand their release, advocates and detained immigrants said at the gathering.
The number of detained immigrants participating in the hunger strike had dwindled to about 20 from 38 in the past few days, because immigrants feared consequences from officials if they continued, one detailed immigrant said through a phone connected to a speaker.
Still, 97 detainees were housed at the facility at the time, The Bergen Record reported–noting that even these numbers signaled a significant decrease since the Trump administration. On Wednesday, there were 39 detained immigrants at Bergen County Jail, according to an ICE spokesperson.
Advocates and detained immigrants themselves are also worried that the pressure to end the contracts might lead to transfers further away from family members. A growing number of detained immigrants have been transferred away from the facility since Essex announced the termination of its the contract with ICE, said Mariama Diallo, an organizer with Abolish ICE NY-NJ Coalition, who was in contact with the detainees inside the facility. This week, one detained immigrant had been to Florida, she said.
An ICE spokesperson for the New Jersey office said that the agency does not provide transfer numbers. A spokesperson for the Bergen County Sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
One detained immigrant who testified over the phone, brought up his fear of being transferred away from his community. “We’re from New Jersey, we belong here,” he said. “They’re trying to ship us away from our family.”
The hunger strike is the latest sign of unrest at the facility. Just last week, 14 protesters were arrested during an anti-ICE demonstration outside Bergen County Jail, one was charged with assaulting an officer. On May 3, advocates alleged that officers physically assaulted several detained immigrants after targeting two people accused of smoking. Officials told WNYC that a “melee” had ensued after detained immigrants were seen “passing contraband” between units.
As they demanded their release, some of the detained immigrants also expressed their deep gratitude for the advocates asking for their release–calling them their lifeline.
“You guys are the heart pump for us,” one immigrant who said he had been detained for 53 months and had been participating in the hunger strike, told advocates on the phone. “We are here–it’s like we’re in the cemetery.”
“In here, this is our gravesite,” another man said.
At one point, advocates waved at the detainees from their spot on the outside of the facility. From the sidewalk, a slight silhouette of a hand was barely visible coming from the inside of the jail, waving back at the advocates–who jumped up and down for joy when they saw the wave.
This article was updated to include data provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement