Not over until it’s over

The pros and cons of the new ICE contract


Depending on whose legal opinion you accept as valid, a contentious Oct. 11 vote by the Hudson County freeholders to approve a 10-year contract to house Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees in the county jail may or may not end in 2020.

In a marathon seven-hour meeting moved to the Hudson County Court building on Oct. 11 to accommodate massive protests, the freeholders voted to approve the contract, adding a sunset provision that would require another vote at the end of 2020.

The freeholders voted 6 to 3 on the contract, reworded from a version approved in July. The vote came even as protestors filled the court chambers. The contract can generate as much as $30 million annually to the county.

The problem is, legal opinions on the contract differ, one suggesting if the freeholders do not vote in 2020 to end the contract, it will continue until 2029. Another legal opinion claims the lack of a freeholder vote that year would kill the contract entirely.

Freeholder Bill O’Dea said he is currently seeking a clarification, and will issue a report at the next freeholder meeting in November.

Several former detainees who appeared at the freeholder meeting testified that they had been sexually mistreated while in custody.

O’Dea and other freeholders said they have already begun inquiries into one man’s claims, and have spoken to the corrections officer with whom he filed the complaint.

The freeholders also voted to establish the Hudson County Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Advisory Board, which will review some of the issues raised concerning conditions at the jail. This includes access to medical care, better food (as well as ethnic food choices), expanded recreational and exercise opportunities, and expanding visiting hours from a half hour once a week to two hours.

Pro and cons

The freeholders are caught between two extremes. On one side, jail employees and their unions are pleading for freeholders to continue the contract since traditional prisoner populations are declining due to state and federal reforms. Hundreds of jobs could be at risk. The county relies on the ICE contract to help pay for the costs of operating the jail, as well as supplementing other parts of the budget.

The New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice accused the county of profiting off the detention and deporting of people.

“Unfortunately, while advocates and residents are fighting to end immigration detention and deportations across the country, Hudson County Freeholders continue to play politics with the lives of immigrant detainees and their families,” the group said in a statement. “All the Hudson County freeholder actions indicate that they are simply hoping this pressure dies down. They are hoping that in two years this won’t be an issue anymore and that they can go back to previous excuses for partaking in this inhumane system.”

The vote was taken to appease both sides and as part of an agreement to void a lawsuit over the perceived lack of opportunity for public input during the July vote.

Freeholder Anthony Romano, who voted to approve the new contract, said he believed this was the first step in the county’s getting out of the detainee-housing business.

“We want to be out from under this before the end of 2020,” he said.

The other side of the issue

While there was some support for the contract, most of this came from conservative groups. The vast majority were opposed to the contract on some level, although only the most extreme groups called for the immediate elimination of the contract.

Several activists were concerned about the loss of access to detainees if the county ceased housing them and these detainees were relocated to more remote facilities elsewhere in the country.

Esther Wintner, a community activist in Jersey City, raised a serious challenge to the perception that all ICE detainees are simply victims of an over-aggressive immigration program. She said she obtained public records for classification and definitions of crimes associated with detainees, which showed there may be legitimate public safety reasons for detaining some of those individuals.

“I don’t have the names of the detainees; only data,” she said. “Looking at the data indicates to me that what is being presented as far as the detainees might not be accurate.”

Yvonne Balcer, also very active in Jersey City, also supported the contract renewal.

“I was the only one last month who spoke against cutting the ICE contract,” she said. “The freeholders acknowledge these inmates will be transferred to other facilities and mentioned Alabama. This is not a win for taxpayers and it is not a win for inmates whose families are in the metro area.”

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