Lawyers, doctors, immigrant advocates, elected officials, residents, and detainees past and present spent approximately nine hours of an almost 13-hour Hudson County Freeholder meeting urging their representatives not to renew a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house federal prisoners and detainees at the Hudson County Correctional Facility.
Despite the testimony, the freeholders adopted the resolution with a 6-3 vote, allowing the county’s administration to enter the contract. This, despite statements made in 2018 asserting that the existing contract with ICE would be phased out by the end of 2020.
Not one of the estimated 200 public speakers spoke in support of the contract.
Of note, the term “Freeholder” is deemed outdated and offensive because it refers to white, male, debt-free porperty holders. A bill to change the name to Hudson County Commisioners could take effect in January if passed by the legislature and signed by the governor.
“I tried to imagine this country without immigrants to make our world complete, but I cannot,” Hoboken resident Liz Ndoye said. “How can you, our elected officials, vote in favor of this contract that will place more people into the heart of our immigration system and into our inhumane deportation machine. Are you not people of conscience?”
“I wonder if you lose sleep about children separated from their family members,” said Paula Rogovin. “I do. I hope you do. It’s wrong for Hudson County to make money from such an inhumane practice. This is blood money that Hudson County is making from this contract.”
Elected officials also challenged the notion that money received from the contract was needed.
“Support for ICE via contracts such as this one harms our communities and undermines our values,” said Hoboken Councilwoman Emily Jabbour. “I say this as a mother, as a social worker, and as a fellow elected official. I challenge the notion that this contract is needed for purposes of the county budget.”
Jersey City Ward E Councilman James Solomon said: “Any agreement with ICE is going to put us in an unethical and immoral place and, by extension, the county and everyone living in it is profiting off the detention of human beings.”
NYU Law Professor and co-director of immigrant rights clinic Alina Das said she’d represented detainees at the jail for years, noting that the more space ICE is given to house detainees, the more ICE will make arrests.
“Holding open these beds is simply an invitation to ICE to fill up the beds and justify their detention budgets,” she said.
Several people spoke about the conditions of the facility, likening them to internment or concentration camps.
“I’ve received calls about people being locked in their cells for 23 and a half hours a day .. cells without blankets … cells that have feces on the wall … people who have had their medical care denied,” said Attorney Sophia Gurulé. “They have literally starved themselves to get you to pay attention … If you vote to continue this contract, you’re personally and directly contributing to human suffering … If someone dies on your watch … their deaths will be on your hands as well as ICE’s.”
Advocates read letters and statements from members of the public who could not attend the meeting due to its 1 p.m. start on Tuesday, Nov. 24, and from recently released detainees.
Jose Miranda said he represented a man he called Richie who was arrested by ICE for driving while under the influence and held for nearly a year, leaving behind his wife and two children.
Richie developed chronic medical conditions while detained which put him at risk of contracting COVID-19. His detention not only endangered his health but also resulted in his family’s debt because he was the main breadwinner.
Others spoke about the fear their loved ones faced on a daily basis.
“My dad, his biggest fear was getting thrown into jail and deported to Ecuador,” said Hoboken reside Ron Bautisita. “Other people’s fear is even bigger … No one leaves their home country just because. You need a really strong reason.”
The freeholders voted to cap public speakers on agenda items, limiting the number of speakers after receiving input from legal counsel Ed Florio. He affirmed the legality of the cap, stating, “The Open Public Meetings Act requires public participation but doesn’t specify the time or number of speakers required to meet that legal requirement.’
The resolution allows County Executive Tom DeGise to negotiate the final terms of the ICE contract, permitting the “the longest period of time allowed by law.” According to corporation counsel, that is up to 10 years. According to the existing contract, ICE pays the county $120 per day per detainee.
This would mean that if the current detained population of about 90 people remains the same next year, the county would stand to receive about $4 million.
But money wasn’t a factor for some of the freeholder’s affirmative votes.
Freeholder Al Cifelli, who represents East Newark, Harrison, Secaucus, and Kearny, where the jail is located, said, “I am not overly concerned whether the county makes or loses money. My concern is the well being of the 70-plus inmates or detainees at the facility.”
He questioned whether detainees who are currently held in the facility would benefit from the end of the contract, stating that they may be transferred further away. He also noted that after speaking with some detainees, he felt the majority did not want the contract to be canceled.
“The majority of the men I talked to … they did not want the contract terminated because they were fearful of what would happen if they left,” he said.
Attorneys said those who already had court dates would be transferred to other facilities in the region if the Hudson County contract was cancelled.
Cifelli, who voted to approve the contract, said that despite the public comments, people in the county and across the state “are more in the center,” and he was voted into office to represent them.
“I am enlightened by the passion of the speakers,” he said, noting “I’m turned off by some of them … some of the speakers were off the rails …some were just crazy .., but I appreciate the passion of the speakers.”
Freeholder Caridad Rodriguez who represents Weehawken, Guttenberg, and West New York, said that she approved of the contract, noting that while her family was embraced by the U.S. when they immigrated from Cuba “there has to be law and order.”
“No one here has mentioned instances of undocumented people committing any crimes,” she said. “They’re all saints, and they’re all persecuted? Yes, I vote for the ICE contract because I don’t know how much better it would be for them somewhere else … we can’t let people loose into the streets. There has to be order.”
According to Freeholder Bill O’Dea, who represents parts of Jersey City, the majority of detainees committed minor crimes and have been held long enough that they have already served their time, He called a 10- year contract with ICE “ludicrous.”
O’Dea, who voted against the resolution, said immigration was the “civil rights movement of the 2020 era,” noting that detainees are treated differently than other incarcerated people simply because of their immigration status.
He said Hudson County could lead the way for its neighbors, noting that if Hudson County decides to no longer house ICE detainees, then Essex County and Bergen County could follow suit.
“This is a movement, make no mistake about it,” O’Dea said. “How will your children or your grandchildren look at you 10 years from now, when hopefully there will be no more ICE … We have a chance today to say something, and we have a chance to do something…. Movements start and continue with bold brave steps.”
Freeholder Fanny Cedeno who represents Union City voted against the resolution, stating that voting yes would mean disregarding her constituents, noting the “mass incarcerations of undocumented immigrants has real-world consequences,” including loss of income and emotional distress.
Freeholder Joel Torres, who also represents parts of Jersey City, said his crying children were fearful that their mother and grandmother would be deported even though they are naturalized citizens “because that’s what they were hearing from their president.”
The resolution passed with a 6-3 vote, with Freeholders Anthony Vainieri who represents North Bergen and parts of Secaucus; Anthony Romano who represents Hoboken and parts of Jersey City; Jerry Walker who represents parts of Jersey City; and Kenneth Kopacz who represents Bayonne, voting to adopt the resolution.
The meeting continued until after 1:30 a.m. with members of the public expressing their “disgust” and “disappointment” at the outcome with several people telling the freeholders to “go to hell” and others stating that they had “completely lost faith in local government.”
“What was the point of having the meeting? What was the point of public comment on agenda items?” questioned Mark Devens.