After a tense, four-and-a-half hour meeting on Thursday evening, the Hudson County Freeholders approved a resolution to end the county’s contract to hold ICE detainees at the Hudson County Correctional Facility by December 2020.
The fate of the more than 600 detainees held at the jail has been in flux ever since County Executive Tom DeGise announced he would seek to have the contract ended by that cutoff date, or sooner if possible. The move was prompted by fierce community activism, but questions have arisen over whether closing access to ICE would actually benefit the detainees.
In a drab room on the fourth floor of Hudson County Superior Court, community members spoke passionately both in favor and against maintaining the contract. There was plenty of friction between activists and freeholders, more than once culminating in heated exchanges between Board Chairman Anthony Vainieri and the people testifying.
Early on, Vainieri threatened to have activists expelled from the room after they began chants of “shame” at a woman who suggested that immigrants were taking jobs and housing away from others in the county.
Three self-described former ICE detainees of the Hudson facility testified at the hearing about their experience being detained. Two referred to the time they spent in the jail as “torture.” Their litany of complaints included lack of access to mental health services, inadequate food and limitations on family visits. All three called for the jail to be closed as soon as possible.
One of the former detainees, Leisvel González, described being raped by other detainees at the jail twice, and reporting the rapes to jail administration to no avail. Freeholder Bill O’Dea then asked the jail director Ron Edwards, who was in attendance, to prepare a full report on the incident and what was done about it. The detainee then pointed to a uniformed lieutenant in the crowd as the person he made the report to. The lieutenant nodded.
“I don’t want to try this issue here, but the lieutenant shook his head in the affirmative just now, that it was reported to him. So we need to have a full briefing and understanding about what occurred as a result of what was reported,” said O’Dea.
Even anti-ICE activists fell on different sides of the issue of whether the contract should be preserved.
Those seeking to have the contract ended portrayed the issue as a moral stain on the county, pointing to the experiences of detainees held there.
“Despite being Democrats, all of you are willing to go along with Trump and his unconstitutional agenda,” said Sofia Cutler, a teacher and member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Most of the activists in attendance wanted the contract to be ended in the shortest span contractually possible, 60 days, and disagreed with the idea that the detainees were better off in Hudson as opposed to anywhere else. “The concentration camps were liberated at the end of World War II, they weren’t reformed,” another advocate said.
Advocates who were seeking to have the contract preserved said keeping the detainees in Hudson means they’re closer to their lawyers and families. Some suggested that the county should invest in the jail to make it more habitable for the immigrants that ICE will inevitably detain.
“Please keep our people in our backyard so we can help them,” said Issam Doukali, who was speaking on behalf of several local Arab-American groups and religious organizations. He described a young former ICE detainee, who had received help with his case from the community and was now a plumber.
Several speakers spoke of the revenue the ICE contract brings to the county. Canceling the contract would entail the loss of the roughly $110 per diem rates that the federal government pays the county per detainee.
Yvonne Balcer spoke of paying 24 percent of her income in county taxes in urging the freeholders to maintain the contract. “Your job is to represent the taxpayers of Hudson County, not some social group,” she said.
Ultimately, the Freeholders approved both resolutions they were considering at the special session, including the contract limitation and a separate resolution to create an advisory body to look into conditions at the jail and how they could be improved.
The contract will expire in 2020 to give the county time to find an alternate revenue source to make up for lost federal funds. However, ICE could choose at any point to remove the detainees and transfer them to another facility of their choosing.
A spokesperson for County Executive DeGise had previously told Documented that Hudson County would attempt to liaise with nearby counties with similar ICE agreements, such as Bergen County and Orange County, to find a place to efficiently and humanely transfer the detainees. Chairman Vainieri told Documented conversations with other counties were ongoing but nothing had been settled yet.
“[Bergen County] could call me right now and say no,” he said.