In a move that could put a wedge between the Board of Freeholders and the Hudson County executive, immigration activists want the county to stop doing business with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the wake of President Trump’s executive order and the rise of the sanctuary city movement.
Last July, the county renewed its agreement with the federal government to serve as a detention center for undocumented immigrants collected by ICE and awaiting hearings.
Immigration activists are pushing to have the county – which serves as one of four detention centers in the state –stop hosting these immigrants.
In a speech that appears to be a reaction to the activists’ push, County Executive Tom DeGise in his State of the County Address issued on Feb. 16 defended the county’s agreement with ICE.
The speech, rescheduled from when it was first supposed to be given on Feb. 9, was rewritten in apparent response to the activists and questions from The Hudson Reporter as to the county’s role in detaining immigrants.
Two municipalities in Hudson County, Jersey City and Union City, have issued executive orders saying they’re “sanctuary cities” and restricting cooperation with ICE. They say they will not allow city workers or public safety personal to help ICE identify or incarcerate undocumented immigrants unless those immigrants are charged with a felony.
Not as simple as it seems
Hudson County, however, deals with ICE in two ways. Corrections officials report incoming inmates to ICE if they are charged with a felony. But the county also rents jail space to ICE to house detainees ICE itself collects.
In his speech, DeGise said the county would adhere to standards for reporting prisoners to ICE set forth by the U.S. Justice Department under President Barak Obama, rather than the more stringent reporting standards set forth under President George W. Bush after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. A third standard, which is still emerging under President Donald Trump, is expected to be significantly more stringent.
“In July, we re-authorized our Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation to participate in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Priority Enforcement Program, often referred to by its place in federal code, 287G,” DeGise said. “There may be calls in the days ahead by activists for us to withdraw from that agreement. I do not believe we should. This program gives us the ability to remove dangerous individuals from our communities without having a chilling effect on local law enforcement effectiveness.
“In a fifteen month period ending on June 29 of last year, we encountered 599 foreign born inmates at the jail. Of those inmates, less than two percent were flagged.” – Tom DeGise
“We decided to stick with 287(g) after a nearly month-long review that included meetings with immigration activists, ICE officials and members of the Board of Chosen Freeholders. Members of the board met with ICE officials to review the federal guidelines and look at the statistical data. What swayed us to continue the program was the limited nature of how 287(g) operates. These rules narrow the category of individuals who may be flagged for an ICE detainer to only those who pose a meaningful threat to public safety.”
The Obama rules, DeGise said, limit its reach to a tiny number of very dangerous individuals. These are often individuals who prey on immigrant communities.
“In a fifteen month period ending on June 29 of last year, we encountered 599 foreign born inmates at the jail. Of those inmates, less than two percent were flagged,” he said. “Among those were felons convicted of crimes like murder, manslaughter, sexual assaults against children, aggravated assault with weapons and human trafficking.”
DeGise said activists assert that any immigration-related work done by local public safety officers is unacceptable.
“They believe it will frighten immigrant communities from interacting with local law enforcement investigating crimes,” DeGise said. “When it comes to a municipal police force or our Sheriff’s Department, that argument makes some sense. We want all residents to work with police to keep their communities safe. We don’t want them to worry that being a witness to a crime might lead to the deportation of a friend or loved one. However, our corrections officers doing 287(g) work are not police or sheriff’s officers; they do not operate outside the confines of our jail. So their continued involvement in this program should not retard any racial or ethnic group’s willingness to interact with law enforcement in their communities.”
Activists, however, point out that the correctional facility serves as a detention center for ICE prisoners, not merely regular inmates, noting that the county currently houses nearly 1,000 immigration detainees many of whom do not come as a result of police arrests, but ICE sweeps, and that the county has a financial interest in housing them.
Tempted to increase ICE detainees?
While DeGise celebrated new reforms that allow regular inmates charged with minor offenses to be released under various programs, and that the regular prisoner population has been reduced to historically low numbers, activists fear that this will prompt the county to accept more ICE detainees to help cover the costs of operating the jail.
Two years ago, of the estimated 2,100 prisoners housed in Hudson County Jail, 500 were ICE detainees, activists say, this was up from about 300 the year before.
“There are 920 currently in the jail now,” said Erik-Anders Nilsson, president of Jersey City Peace Movement, who asked the freeholders to void the agreement with the feds.
Other activists said there are a number of horror stories concerning people detained that include the breakup of families and children of detainees being put into state care while their parents try to prove their innocence on immigration-related charges.
While payment to the county depends on the number of detainees, under the previous agreement with ICE, Hudson County received $16 million annually. With the numbers of detainees dramatically rising, this figure is expected to jump.
Because overall costs for running the correctional facility are generally fixed – meaning that the county will still have to maintain the buildings and pay the staff – the temptation to accept more immigration detainees may become too great for the county to pass up, especially with the decline in numbers of regular inmates.
Activists last week held a vigil outside the correctional facility protesting ICE’s detention of Haitian immigrants, and it is likely more protests will be conducted in the future.
Freeholder Bill O’Dea also noted that freeholders had received letters opposing the county’s role in hosting ICE detainees, and promised activists that the freeholders’ Public Safety Committee would review the issue.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.