Kean University community members walked through the campus, shouting “Immigrants are welcome here!” last week. They carried a box of over 1,500 signatures to deliver to President Lamont Repollet. Their demand: take Anne Evans Estabrook and her son, Dave Gibbons off the university’s board.
Back in May, advocates revealed that Elberon Development Group is connected to the Elizabeth Detention Center. The company leases the property located at 625 Evans St. Elizabeth, New Jersey to CoreCivic, the private prison corporation which contracts with ICE to hold detainees. At Elberon, Estabrook serves as the chairman and Gibbons is the president and CEO.
CoreCivic received $135 million in contracts to detain immigrants on behalf of the federal government in 2017. Private prison companies often receive a stipend from the government per detainee.
Advocates have been fighting for years to end detention in New Jersey counties like Bergen, Hudson and Essex. Most of the facilities that hold immigrants for ICE in the area are county jails and those contracts allow the counties to collect between $110 and $120 per detainee, per day. Elizabeth is one of the few privately run facilities in the region.
Elberon announced in July that they plan to end their relationship with CoreCivic after receiving backlash and want their values to be reflected in their work. “While we do not have any role in the operations and procedures of our tenants, we do understand the concerns of those who have written and called us,” the company said in a statement. However it is uncertain when CoreCivic’s lease agreement with Elberon will end or if the facility will close.
This was not enough for the Kean community. Stacey Callahan, a graduate of the university, believed that the right thing to do was to start a petition to get the names of the Elberon executives off of the campus. Estabrook is the Vice Chairperson at Wenzhou-Kean University, a satellite university in Wenzhou, China, and Gibbons is a Trustee at Kean.
“When I found out about this, I just thought about all of the friends and students at the school who came from a family of immigrants, some being undocumented themselves,” said Callahan.
Kean University President Lamont Repollent and Elberon Development Group did not respond to a request for comment.
For about nine months, Callahan has been working with current and former classmates and community members to get the word out about the petition. Emma Yorra, Abolish ICE NY-NJ Coalition, and others have been doing phone zaps, pressure action calls to target specific people or institutions, to Repollet and Elberon every Friday since the summer demanding for their removal. Callahan and Yorra say they have yet to receive a response from the university.
In order to get Repollet’s attention, a small group of advocates gathered at Estabrook Wing last Tuesday to speak with him one on one. After being told by a security guard that they could not enter the building, Repellot spoke with advocates for a few short minutes.
Repollet was happy to see the community exercise their constitutional rights and mentioned that he has seen their online messages about the removal of Estabrook and Gibbons.
“We will continue to make sure that we educate our students and do it in a way we think is respectable,” Repollet told advocates. “The family has been very supportive and instrumental with the work that they have been doing here and if they continue to provide support, whether it’s their time or treasure, we’re going to respect that as private citizens.”
Advocates quickly pointed out that the money Estabrook and Gibbons provided to the school was made off of the CoreCivic facility and referred to it as “blood money.” Repollet acknowledged the comment and continued to encourage them to share their opinions.
“He was throwing these terms around, but wasn’t willing to engage in a conversation about the fact that these people are on the board and the fact that the university is taking money earned on the back of immigrants suffering and dying,” Yorra said.
It’s unclear how much money the family has given Kean University in total, but in 2019 Estabrook and Gibbons donated between $10,000 and $24,999 each. The family’s name is also throughout the campus: Estabrook fountain and garden near Kean Hall, Dave Gibbons conference Center at Kean Hall and the Anne Evans Estabrook Human Rights Senior Fellowship.
Before Repollet went back into his office, an advocate asked if Kean cared about where they received their money. He responded that the university cares about their community, yet regardless of the family’s private lives, they have always been “ethical” and “showed integrity,” ignoring a direct answer to the question.
Kean has the second highest amount of undocumented students in the state. “Saying that Kean doesn’t care where they get their money from, even if it’s from immigrant detention was a strong response on his end,” said Callahan. “I think a lot of students would disagree and a lot of students do care where the money comes from.”
Callahan, Yorra and other advocates say they will continue to fight until Elizabeth Detention Center is closed and their names are taken off the board and, as well as but not limited to, locations on campus.
“What they do with this money, it’s like they’re whitewashing their reputations to make it seem like they’re these great philanthropists who love to support education and the arts,” said Yorra. “When in fact they’re prison profiteers.”