Immigration advocates gathered at a Bergen County Jail protest in Hackensack, New Jersey, on Wednesday to demand the release of 21 immigrants set to be transferred to a facility near Buffalo, as well as others detained across the country. About two dozen activists from organizations including First Friends of New Jersey and New York, and Pax Christi New Jersey, chanted and held signs that said, “Releases not transfers” and “free them all,” among other phrases.
There were 21 individuals still detained inside of Bergen as of Wednesday, who were set to be transferred to a detention center in Batavia, New York, more than 330 miles away as soon as Thursday, according to activists from Pax Christi and First Friends. ICE did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the Bergen County jail protest, how many individuals were currently detained at Bergen, or about when and where individuals from Bergen were being transferred.
The Newark Field Office of Immigration And Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the demonstration. On Thursday, ICE said there were 20 individuals currently detained at Bergen, but the agency said it could not comment on the date when transfers would be taking place, due to security reasons. Each transfer is being handled on a case by case basis, ICE said.
Bergen County officials said in early October that detained immigrants would no longer be housed at the county jail.
But advocates said on Thursday that even though this facility will soon stop holding immigrants for ICE, their battle was not over. Activists urged officials to release individuals, not transfer them to facilities even further away from their families and legal teams.
“We will continue to fight,” said Jackie Zapata, the program director for First Friends, holding a microphone in front of the group of activists standing together in front of the brick jail. “We want a system that is inclusive of everyone.”
As the neighboring Hudson County also said it would stop holding immigrants, ICE has been denying many release requests, calling some of the detained immigrants public safety threats, and has instead been transferring immigrants to the Orange County Correctional Facility in New York. ICE has previously told Documented that detained immigrants “in transit from one facility to another institution or jurisdiction will be transported in a safe and humane manner under the supervision of trained and experienced personnel.”
Ernest Francois came to the U.S. from Haiti when he was 13, and had previously been held in both the Essex County Correctional Facility and the Bergen County Jail. He came to the event to demonstrate support for all immigrants still being held in detention at Bergen and elsewhere, he said.
Francois, 48, was released from a Florida facility he was transferred to this month. He recounted the physical abuse he said he faced at the Essex facility and at Bergen, which has been reported in local media and in complaints submitted by his advocates. When Francois heard that Bergen County would no longer be detaining immigrants at its county jail, he was stunned.
“For me to see that, it’s amazing,” he said. “During the time that I was in here, I went through so much.”
Francois is now living in the New York area, and as he pushed for the release of other detained immigrants, he also reflected on his own release. “I didn’t know that it would be possible,” he said. “When I actually was told that I was coming out, I didn’t know what to do.”
Francois’ voice resonated through a speaker when he spoke directly to the immigrants still inside of Bergen. “Stay strong, we got you,” he told them.