Why is a sanctuary city profiting off detentions?

April 19, 2018

Karl Schwartz reports on a protest against the Essex County Detention Center in New Jersey--and the supposedly pro-immigrant politicians who support it.

A COALITION of immigrant rights groups, unions, socialist organizations and other community groups called the Resist the Deportation Machine (RDM) is trying to shut down the Essex County ICE detention center in Newark, one of the largest and most notorious of such facilities.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operation rests on more than 200 detention centers with 40,000 beds, where the agency holds immigrant detainees in preparation for deporting them.

Without this vast network of facilities, ICE's deportation machine would stall. RDM believes that a nationwide movement of direct actions centered around closing ICE detention centers could block the infrastructure that the agency needs to carry out its abuses.

Though Newark Mayor Ras Baraka proudly declares Newark to be a "sanctuary city" and many politicians in overwhelmingly Democratic Essex County claim to be supporters of immigrant rights, it is difficult to square their rhetoric with the reality that the county receives revenue from immigrant detentions.

Essex County Correctional Facility
Essex County Correctional Facility

At $117 per day for each bed filled, Essex County rakes in millions each year from its contract with ICE, which accounts for 5 percent profit of the county's budget for parks and public safety. Because Newark and Essex County have an immigrant friendly reputation, many residents have no idea that the parks they enjoy are partially funded by the blood money of immigrant misery.

Essex County Executive Joe "Joey D" DiVincenzo, a Democrat and the elected official responsible for securing the county's contract with ICE, has defended the practice of funding services through immigrant detentions. "I have to think about the big picture here," DiVincenzo has said. "My job is to bring in revenue."

As taxes on the wealthy and corporations continue to fall dramatically, Joe DiVincenzo is not alone in seeking funding for public services from prison contracts.

But in a state that has offered $7 billion in tax credits to Amazon, refuses to pass a millionaire's tax and has sunk over a billion dollars into a highly controversial mega-mall, it is easy to see through the argument that immigrant detentions are a necessary source of revenue.

THE ESSEX County ICE Detention Center sits on a piece of land near the Port of Newark that is so toxic that the mostly low-income residents who live in the surrounding neighborhood suffer from significantly higher rates of lung cancer, asthma and premature births than people in the rest of the city.

For decades, the Diamond Alkali Company dumped the deadly byproducts from the Agent Orange it produced into the Passaic River just blocks away from the detention center. When the river flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, hundreds of ICE detainees were trapped in cells filled with poisonous water.

The lack of regard for immigrant lives goes well beyond Essex County's choice to locate the facility in such an inhospitable location. A recent report from Human Rights First documents the atrocious conditions at the detention center, including meals consisting of raw and spoiled food, lack of clean drinking water, lack of access to medical care, indefinite detentions, racist harassment and abuse from guards, and no access to an outdoor exercise area.

The Pukri family is just one of the thousands who have been caught up in the nightmare of the deportation machine.

In 2001, Vitor Pukri bought his family to the United States from Albania due to political and religious persecution. This February, Pukri went to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services after being told he had won the diversity visa lottery, but instead he was immediately handed over to ICE agents who had an order of deportation against him.

Within two months, Vitor was awaiting deportation at the Newark Liberty International Airport. His last moments with his family were interrupted by ICE agents arresting his wife Neta and 21-year-old son Mikel, who had come to see him off at the airport.

Now Mikel waits in the Essex Counties ICE Detention Center, and his mother sits in a separate facility in neighboring Hudson County. Both of their fates are uncertain. Countless other detainees languish in wretched conditions across the country, with nobody to tell their story.

ON APRIL 14, activists in the RDM Network took to the fields of Branch Brook Park, one of the many parks in Essex County funded by the contract with ICE. The park was hosting the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which attracts thousands of tourists each year, and RDM used this opportunity to publicly confront Joe DiVincenzo about his support of the ICE contract.

With chants of "Hey, Hey Joe D. Let the immigrants run free!" and an effigy of the county executive with the words "ICE's Puppet" pinned to its chest, activists lined up alongside DiVincenzo as he posed for pictures with local school groups.

As DiVincenzo attempted to leave the scene, protesters followed him while he continued to take publicity photos throughout the crowded festival. Despite being surrounded by several police officers, RDM leaders were eventually able to confront him and present him with a written demand to close the Essex County ICE Detention Center.

During the confrontation, Jay Arena, one of the movement's leaders, said to DiVincenzo, "We should not be financing the budget of Essex County on blood money. We need to tax the rich and not traffic in human beings."

RDM plans on continuing its campaign of direct actions and confrontation. On May Day, the group will be marching through the Ironbound, Newark's historic immigrant neighborhood, to ICE offices in the Peter Rodino Federal Building.

This is the same building where, one year ago, Rutgers students and faculty successfully rallied to protect Carimer Andujar, a DACA recipient and president of the UndocuRutgers student group, when she had been called in to meet with ICE agents.

RDM hopes to build on successful efforts like those to make Essex County a model of how counties can break themselves free from Trump's deportation machine.

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