A bill that would prohibit new, renewed and expanded Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention agreements in New Jersey, has now passed both the State Assembly and Senate floor as of Thursday.
The bill, S3361/A5207, “prohibits State and local entities and private correctional facilities from entering into agreements with federal immigration authorities to detain noncitizens,” and passed directly on party lines in the Senate on Thursday with 23 Democrats supporting the bill, and 15 Republicans opposing it.
The legislation would not terminate ongoing ICE contracts in the state, but would ban private correctional facilities and state and local agencies from entering into any future and novel agreements with ICE to detain immigrants.
Immigration advocates hailed this as a positive step forward for immigrants, but are now pushing for Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey to sign the bill into law as soon as possible.
“The legislature’s swift passage of the anti-detention bill this week demands urgency from the Governor’s office to sign it into law,” Amy Torres, Executive Director at the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said in a statement. “The statewide ban would confirm the message that continues to be raised at the local level: profiting off of pain and family separation contradicts New Jersey values.”
Throughout the week, the bill has been moving expeditiously through the legislature. On Monday, the State Assembly passed it, and on Tuesday, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved the bill.
Activists have been fighting for the bill to be introduced since last fall, Torres said in an interview, when ICE approached New Jersey and New York and issued a Request for Information looking to expand detention capacity in the region for a facility that could hold about 900 beds for detained immigrants.
In recent months, protests staged outside these detention facilities — as well as hunger strikes inside the facilities, with one as recent as last week in the Bergen County Jail — have brought additional attention to the contracts ICE holds in the state, and helped build momentum for the passing of the bill, advocates said.
United States Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez have also called attention to these agreements, and pressured the counties in New Jersey to end contracts with ICE.
If Gov. Murphy signs the bill into law, New Jersey would be the first east coast state to ban future contracts with ICE, as well as renewals or expansions of current contracts. But it is unclear when the bill could be signed into law, as the New Jersey Governor’s Office generally does not comment on pending legislation, a spokeswoman said.
The legislation would follow efforts in California, where private prisons and immigrant detention centers are banned, and in Washington State, where Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill earlier this year banning for-profit jails in the state. In Illinois, a bill which would end ICE contracts with local jails is awaiting the governor’s signature.
For Carlos Sierra, a man previously detained in one of the New Jersey facilities for two years who arrived in the United States as a political refugee from Cuba in 1989, the legislation represents a step toward ending what he said is a “harmful system that hurts people and families like mine.”
Sierra, who now works with First Friends of New York and New Jersey, a nonprofit that supports detained immigrants and their families, said in a statement that he was denied proper care and time to prepare for his legal case while in detention. “It’s a system that has hurt me personally,” he said. “I’m living proof of the suffering, isolation, and deprivation that happens because of detention…New Jersey profited off of the suffering of me and my family.”
ICE currently has contracts with three counties in New Jersey — Bergen, Essex and Hudson — and with CoreCivic, a company that operates a private detention center in Elizabeth.
Some of the detention facilities and local leaders in the state have, in recent months, showed signs of distancing themselves from agreements with ICE. In late April, Essex County announced that it would be ending its contract with the agency.
In Hudson County, legislators and officials have publicly expressed that they would also be open to getting out of their contract with ICE —though last year the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders voted to renew the county’s 10-year contract with ICE.
Elberon Development Group, the developer that owns the building that houses the private Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility, is suing to break the lease with CoreCivic.
The current contract with ICE at the Bergen County Jail does not have an expiration date, but the facility is not taking new detained immigrants, Bergen County Sheriff spokesperson Keisha McLean said in an email, noting that the “reduction” of detained immigrants at the facility is the decision of ICE. There are now 41 immigrants detained in ICE custody at Bergen County Jail, she said.
Still, advocates note that more concrete steps are needed to terminate the practice of holding detained immigrants in the state. They have been urging ICE not to transfer immigrants away from these facilities, but to release them completely.
On Friday, immigration advocates from several organizations including the Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services and Make the Road New York once again called upon ICE to stop “abruptly transferring” detained immigrants out of New York area detention centers to other facilities across the country, including to Louisiana, Alabama and Pennsylvania. The organizations said that since January 20, at least 22 clients represented by the various groups were transferred without any notice to their attorneys.
“While we celebrate this progress, we urge the Governor to sign this bill into law without delay,” Tania Mattos, Policy and Northeast Monitoring Manager with Freedom for Immigrants, said in a statement. “We also call on those same lawmakers who voted to pass this significant legislation to commit to releasing the nearly 300 people who remain detained in the state’s three ICE prisons.”Sierra, who was previously held in detention, echoed Mattos’ message about pushing the legislation forward: “I want you to know, my wife and my son, the only way for them to heal is through this bill becoming law.”