These New Jersey counties make millions off ICE

July 18, 2018

Democratic Party politicians in three New Jersey counties are cashing in by signing lucrative contracts to detain immigrants on behalf of ICE, explains Karl Schwartz.

WE’VE SEEN the images of children locked in cages. We’ve heard the heartbreaking cries of toddlers ripped apart from their parents. We’ve read the horror stories of working people like Pablo Villavicencio being kidnapped for doing nothing more than trying to provide for their families.

One might think that local governments would want to steer clear of signing contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency behind these atrocities, during this disgraceful moment in our history. And you might think this would be a no-brainer in a deep blue pocket of a deep blue state like New Jersey.

But Democratic Party officeholders in Hudson County, New Jersey, are either clueless or simply don’t care.

On July 11, the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders voted 5 to 2 to approve a new 10-year contract giving ICE the authority to continue detaining 800 immigrants in Kearny, New Jersey.

On the march against ICE detentions at the Hudson County jail in New Jersey
On the march against ICE detentions at the Hudson County jail in New Jersey

The contract would raise the rate that ICE pays the county from $77 per inmate per day to $120 per day. If all 800 beds are kept full, the county stands to make $35 million per year imprisoning immigrants.

The County Freeholders know what the conditions are like inside the Hudson County Correctional Facility where ICE pays for space. Four people detained at the facility have committed suicide in the past year. Numerous reports document the inhumane conditions, including food with maggots, dirty drinking water and insufficient medical care.

Confronted with public outrage, Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise finally acknowledged the atrocious conditions detainees were living in and terminated a $29 million contract with the facility’s health-care provider CFG Health Systems. But he continues to allow his county to profit from immigrant detention.

HUDSON COUNTY isn’t the only New Jersey counting making a bundle off contracts with ICE. The neighboring counties of Bergen and Essex also rake in millions of dollars each year from housing immigrant detainees, as New York Public Radio recently reported.

The amount of money these three counties collected from ICE between 2015 and 2018 comes to more than $150 million — and the annual take has increased by 46 percent since Trump took office.

The conclusion is inescapable: Even though the state of New Jersey voted against Trump by 14 percentage points, Democratic Party politicians won’t challenge Trump’s deportation machine when there is so much money on the line.

The counties where these immigrant detention centers are located are some of the most diverse and Democratic-voting regions in the Northeast. The Democrats dominates local, state and national elections in the northern counties of New Jersey directly outside of New York City.

In order to be elected in this region, politicians have to portray themselves as being friendly toward immigrant communities. But few seem to be willing to actually stand for issues of any substance.

There are many examples of this posturing:

Newark calls itself a sanctuary city while housing a massive immigrant detention center.

Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura spoke alongside local politicians at the unveiling of a statue honoring immigrants, but no mention was made of the fact that Fontoura’s department received a $2 million COPS grant from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice to cooperate with ICE.

Sen. Robert Menendez and several Democrats in the House of Representative have held rallies outside the privately run Elizabeth Detention Center. But none have appeared at the many grassroots protests organized outside of detention centers run by people in their own party.

MANY OF the local politicians who make Trump’s deportation machine possible opt for silence.

Joseph “Joe D.” DiVincenzo, the Essex County executive who has contracted with ICE and is seeking his fifth term, attempted to hide from protesters at New Jersey’s Cherry Blossom Festival this past spring, and he was absent from a July 11 meeting with the County Freeholders, which was packed with activists who wanted to confront him.

The New Jersey politicians who have spoken publicly about contracting with ICE have given weak excuses.

Before “Abolish ICE” became a rallying cry, Joe D. bragged about how his contract with the agency would lower the tax burden for county residents — endorsing the view that budgets should be built on the backs of immigrants rather than taxing the wealthy and corporations.

After he voted to approve the new contract, Hudson County Freeholder Anthony Vainieri gave a rambling statement to the press:

ICE detainees have to go somewhere. We can house them here, and it’s better for the they don’t have to travel far...It’s not like if we don’t take them, it’s going to go away. It’s not going to go away. There is no reason why we shouldn’t approve a contract just because people are against ICE.

The “we’d rather it be here than somewhere else” excuse has been made many times — both by people with genuine concerns about immigrant detainees, but also by insincere politicians who are looking for any possible way to deflect the anger they face for contracting with ICE.

This line of reasoning deserves substantial critique. Many New Jersey activists have argued that it will be impossible to have a movement that challenges ICE as long as counties are allowed to profit off of immigrant detentions. If the profit motive to detain immigrants isn’t broken, local governments will only be incentivized to continue cooperating with ICE.

Some immigrant rights activists have opposed targeting individual ICE detention centers because they fear that a single closure will result in the detainees being moved to a more remote location.

Everyone involved in these struggles should take this argument seriously, but these concerns should serve as a motivation for activists across the country to work harder at closing all detention centers — and not to back away from challenging local governments that assert their complicity is irrelevant.

The fact is that ICE is already sending detainees to locations far from where they were arrested.

Activists Ravi Ragbir and Jean Montrevil were both arrested in New York City, but held at a detention center in Miami. Asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border have been sent to detention centers as far away as Albany, New York. For many people being held in detention, the metropolitan areas of the Northeast are remote locations.

Unaccompanied minors who are separated from their parents are sent to these New Jersey facilities when they turn 18, according to New York Public Radio. Despite being thousands of miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border, New Jersey is serving as a crucial link in the chain of the family separation crisis.

THERE IS much evidence that ICE is having trouble finding space to hold all of its detainees. The detention facility in Victorville, California, was so overwhelmed by the 1,000 people it was supposed to house that both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have admitted they can’t handle the number of people being sent to their district’s facilities.

Local governments from Oregon to Texas to Virginia have already broken their contracts with ICE, and as calls for abolishing the agency become more prominent, activists have the potential to put a massive dent in the deportation machine by refusing to let their local governments contract with an already overburdened agency.

The three North Jersey counties of Bergen, Hudson and Essex detain about 2,000 immigrants. These detention centers are some of the biggest in the country and make up almost 6 percent of ICE’s 34,000 beds. Breaking these contracts would throw a sizable wrench into ICE’s ability to continue increasing its mass detention policy.

Some New Jersey politicians are starting to speak out — slowly. The mayors of Hoboken and Jersey City have called for Hudson County to break its contract with ICE.

Politicians have been less slow in cities like Springfield, Oregon, and Alexandria, Virginia, which have already canceled their contracts with ICE. As dozens of other local governments break or are considering breaking ICE contracts, New Jersey politicians are falling behind elected officials in many parts of the country.

With “Abolish ICE” entering mainstream discourse, there has been lots of discussion about what abolishing the agency would actually look like. Activists from across the left have advocated various strategies, but one thing remains clear: communities need to challenge ICE in whatever ways they can.

Forcing local governments to break their contracts with the agency will be a powerful move in showing that we will not allow ICE to continue terrorizing immigrants in our communities, and we will not let cities and counties fill their coffers by warehousing the bodies of immigrants.

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