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ICE Can Renew Elizabeth Detention Contract After NJ Judge Ruling

Judge Robert Kirsch called a contested NJ law banning new ICE contracts a “dagger aimed at the heart of the federal government’s immigration enforcement mission and operations.”

While advocates pressure Gov. Murphy to end new ICE detention contracts, CoreCivic extended its contract until 2023

A detention center in Elizabeth, N.J.

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked a provision of a New Jersey law banning new, renewed or extended immigration detention contracts in the state.

The U.S. District Judge for the District of New Jersey, Robert Kirsch, granted a preliminary injunction allowing private prison operator CoreCivic and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to keep the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility open if they choose to renew their contract. Elizabeth is the last remaining immigration detention center in New Jersey. 

The New Jersey legislation enacted in 2021, AB 5207, would have barred CoreCivic and ICE from renewing their contract – and the facility would have had to shut down. But in February, CoreCivic filed a lawsuit against New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in an effort to keep the facility open, and the United States Department of Justice later submitted a statement of interest backing CoreCivic.

AB 5207 was signed into law in 2021, shortly after Documented reported that CoreCivic and ICE quietly extended the contract at Elizabeth while the bill had already passed the legislature and was awaiting New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature.

CoreCivic declined to answer specific questions about whether the contract for the Elizabeth Detention Center would now be renewed. But at a hearing over the case on August 14, an attorney representing the company said that if the preliminary injunction were granted, the contract between ICE and CoreCivic would “immediately” be renewed or extended.  The current contract expires on Thursday.

On Tuesday, Judge Kirsch sided with CoreCivic and the United States, calling the existing New Jersey legislation a “dagger aimed at the heart of the federal government’s immigration enforcement mission and operations.”

Judge Kirsch said in his decision that the state law was “unconstitutional” as applied to CoreCivic’s operations at the Elizabeth Detention Center, and prohibited the legislation from being enforced against CoreCivic’s dealings with ICE. 

Though Judge Kirsch acknowledged that the detention of any person raised “health and safety” concerns, he emphasized that any states passing similar laws would “result in nothing short of chaos.”

The New Jersey Office of the Attorney General will be appealing the decision, a spokesperson for the office said in a statement. “We are disappointed with today’s ruling, which we view as interfering with New Jersey’s right to protect its residents,” the spokesperson said. “Private detention facilities threaten the public health and safety of New Jerseyans, including when used for immigration purposes.”

Last week, elected officials from the New Jersey Congressional Delegation wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, urging the Biden administration to retract their statement of interest and support for CoreCivic in the lawsuit. In the letter, Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, as well as Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman, Robert J. Menendez, Donald M. Payne, among others, expressed “concern” about the Biden administration’s support of the lawsuit, especially since President Biden previously vowed to end the federal government’s use of privately operated detention facilities, the letter said.

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Molly Linhorst, a staff attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey, highlighted in a call with advocates on Tuesday that the “practical” result of the court’s decision on Tuesday was that CoreCivic and ICE would likely be renewing their contract.

This decision, however, does not impact other provisions of the anti-detention law, Linhorst said, including the prohibition on state and local facilities from entering into ICE detention contracts. Essex, Hudson and Bergen Counties had all previously stopped holding individuals for ICE.

Immigration advocates quickly convened virtually to condemn the decision. “We do want to reiterate that this is not in any way a finality,” Amy Torres, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said Tuesday at a virtual meeting. “It seems to be the will of the community to continue to fight to end operations at Elizabeth Detention Center and make sure that site closes for good.”

Gov. Murphy also responded promptly to the decision, and was “disappointed that a federal court has ruled that New Jersey does not have the authority to prohibit private entities from entering into detention agreements with ICE,” Tyler Jones, a spokesperson for Gov. Murphy’s Office, said in a statement. Still, the Governor is “pleased” that the rest of the legislation, as it applies to public entities, remains intact, Jones said.

CoreCivic however, was appreciative of the opportunity to present its positions to the court, and grateful to continue supporting the mission of ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, Ryan Gustin, CoreCivic’s director of public affairs, said in a statement. “Our sole job has been and continues to be to help the government solve problems in ways it could not do alone – to help manage unprecedented humanitarian crises, dramatically improve the standard of care for vulnerable people, and meet critical public safety needs efficiently and innovatively,” Gustin said.

ICE did not respond to inquiries by publication deadline.

Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio

Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio is a Report for America Corps Member who covers immigration for Documented, where she focuses on immigration courts and detention.

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