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CoreCivic Sues New Jersey Governor Over Law Banning ICE Contracts

New Jersey banned ICE detention facilities with a 2021 law, but private prison operator CoreCivic is suing to hold on.

CoreCivic, the corporation that manages Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey, is suing New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and State Attorney General Matthew Platkin over legislation passed in 2021 that they claim is “unconstitutional,” according to a lawsuit filed in federal court Friday. The private prison company is asking the court to declare the law, which prohibits new or renewed ICE immigration detention center contracts in the state, unconstitutional in relation to CoreCivic’s operations, claiming that the legislation is preempted by federal law. Elizabeth is the state’s only remaining detention center.

The company has also requested the court ban the state from enforcing the legislation against CoreCivic and for the court to forbid the state from getting involved with CoreCivic’s contract negotiations with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The company’s contract for the Elizabeth facility is set to expire at the end of August and cannot be extended under the state’s current legislation, the complaint says. 

CoreCivic said in the complaint that the state’s legislation, S3361/A5207, “undermines and eliminates the congressionally funded and approved enforcement of federal immigration law by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) within the State of New Jersey.”  

The company added that “the immunity of the Federal Government from state regulation is a fundamental principle of the Constitution.”

Ryan Gustin, a spokesman for CoreCivic, said in an email that due to the ongoing litigation, the company could not comment beyond what was in the complaint.

The New Jersey State Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit. Gov. Phil Murphy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Besides Elizabeth, no other detention facility has remained operational in the state after Bergen, Hudson and Essex counties stopped holding immigrants for ICE in county jails in 2021 following a push from advocates and some local officials for the state to distance itself from ICE. Elizabeth was the sole private detention facility left in the state.

In August of 2021, Gov. Murphy signed the legislation essentially preventing further ICE detention in New Jersey, which CoreCivic is challenging in its lawsuit. For years, advocates had pushed for New Jersey counties to end their relationships with ICE, and many applauded the passage of the legislation, which included barring the renewal of private detention facility contracts like the contract at the Elizabeth facility. 

But while the bill was awaiting Gov. Murphy’s signature, the contract between ICE and CoreCivic was renewed at the Elizabeth facility in the summer of 2021, extending the date of the agreement through August of 2023. 

In a 2021 earnings call which outlined the renewal of the contract between CoreCivic and ICE, CoreCivic President and Chief Executive Officer Damon T. Hininger said that the Elizabeth Detention Center had become “particularly critical for ICE due to recent losses of most of its detention capacity in the region.”

The current contract with ICE would expire on Aug. 31, 2023, according to the complaint. If it weren’t for the legislation blocking renewed immigration detention contracts, “CoreCivic would expect to negotiate and enter into a new contract with ICE to take effect following the expiration of its current ICE Contract,” the lawsuit says. CoreCivic’s contract with ICE at the detention center first began in 2005, and was renewed five times since then, according to the lawsuit.

If the Elizabeth Detention Center is closed, CoreCivic alleges that it would lose about $18 million per year in revenue over the next four years, the lawsuit says, on top of the more than $7.5 million that the company invested in transforming the space into a detention center. In the 2021 fiscal year, CoreCivic made $552 million from ICE contracts — the majority of the group’s annual revenue — according to the finance tracker Open Secrets.

ICE declined to comment on CoreCivic’s lawsuit.

Some advocates who had demanded that the state close all detention facilities publicly condemned CoreCivic’s lawsuit, characterizing it as an attempt to continue earning millions of dollars at the expense of the lives of immigrants.

“Immigrant communities and New Jersey — we are not going to be threatened by greedy, for-profit corporations,” said Amy Torres, the executive director at the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “It’s clear that this is a profit calculus, and I think that they should be expecting a fight in court. We’re going to stand behind Governor Murphy and Attorney General Matt Platkin to make sure that immigrants are prioritized.”

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