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ICE detention contracts banned from New Jersey prisons

New Jersey bans local and private jails from entering into new ICE detention contracts as Gov. Murphy signs bill into law. 

Under the new law, local and private jails in New Jersey are now banned from “entering into, renewing, or extending immigration detention agreements”  with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The bill was quietly signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy last Friday, making N.J. the fifth state to limit or ban contracts with ICE. 

“This win has been a long time coming, not just for immigrants in New Jersey but for every family separated by detention. Our state now joins the handful of others who are spearheading the fight to end ICE detention nationwide,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice in a statement.

Advocates push for termination of all ICE detention contracts 

While the new law is a great step forward in ending the inhuman detainment of immigrants, it does not affect current ICE contracts, only future ones. In Bergen and Hudson county, long-term contracts still stand. Additionally, a private jail in Elizabeth recently extended its contract until 2023 while the bill waited to be signed. 

“The people inside are the ones being impacted by the delay,” said Chia-Chia Wang of the American Friends Service Committee. “I can only say it’s a hard lesson learned, but I don’t know if that can fully describe the real hardships people face inside.”

For years, counties such as Bergen, Essex, and Hudson defended the controversial practice of immigrant detention, which allowed the counties to rake in millions by charging ICE as much as $120 daily per detainee. However, recently the Democrats running these counties have shifted in their stance toward the practice, with Essex County announcing in April that it would cut its contracts with ICE and the other counties hinting they would be open to terminating their contracts as well

State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (Image source)

Advocates are now pushing for more action, hoping to build momentum following the victory of this bill. Many are concerned about the hardships immigrants will face in the remaining facilities still under contract with ICE, especially as the COVID-19 Delta variant continues to spread. Wang has called for all N.J. ICE contracts to be terminated, and other advocates and officials continue to speak out and push back against ICE. 

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State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, a main sponsor of the law, chimed in stating “county jails and other entities should be used to house people accused of real crimes, not to arbitrarily hold people who are trying to live their lives and contribute like anyone else.”

“Many of these individuals are immigrants who have lived in New Jersey for years, enriching our communities, and strengthening local economies,” Weinberg added. “This is a common sense bill and a humane one.”

“Kids in Cages” Warehouse detention center shuts down for renovations

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection announces shut down of South-Texas “Ursula” warehouse detention center. The facility gained national attention when media coverage exposed the overcrowded, unsafe living conditions and showed “kids in cages” back in 2018. CBP officials say the facility will be closed for renovations until 2022. The renovations plan to redesign the facility and remove the chain-link partitions to provide more humane living conditions. 

Photo by Phil Botha on Unsplash

Warehouse detention center shuts down

Anyone who has been paying attention to immigration reform issues over the past few years will be familiar with the term “kids in cages” and the deplorable living conditions faced by migrants who have been detained for prolonged periods in detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The “Ursula” warehouse facility in South-Texas became infamous when new coverage revealed the harsh, dehumanizing living conditions migrants faced within the facility. Freezing, overcrowded, and filthy the facility packed immigrants–a vast majority of which were young children separated from family–into small chain-link enclosures. 

“Children were in freezing, packed cages and sleeping on concrete,” said Hope Frye in an article with the New York Times. As a lawyer who oversaw a visiting team of inspectors at the Ursula facility, she witnessed first-hand the terrible and upsetting conditions. “It was bone-chilling. Young children were violently ill, separated from their family.” 

Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash

Since then, efforts have been made to put an end to the inhumane treatment of immigrants in these facilities. These renovations are only the first step toward reform at the border. 

“The new design will allow for updated accommodations, which will greatly improve the operating efficiency of the center as well as the welfare of individuals being processed,” Thomas Gresback, a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, said in an article with The Washington Post.

The renovation, which will be paid for by funds allocated by Congress, will include room partitions that will “afford modest housing accommodations” as well as updating processing areas and providing a recreational area for children. 

At its peak, the center housed over 2,000 immigrants, many being young women and children. The renovated center will significantly lower those numbers, aiming to provide space for 1,100 individuals. 

Ursula’s history and origins

The Ursula center was first opened in 2014 during the Obama administration as a response to a surge of Central American immigrants arriving at the border in search of asylum. At the time, the facility was a welcomed improvement to the previous cramped locations. During the 2014 surge, the bare-bones facilities were not equipped to handle the large influx of individuals, leaving many families out in the heat for hours in exteriors locations. The Ursula warehouse was acquired to remedy this and provide an indoor, climate-controlled environment.  

In 2014, migrants were processed and released quickly from the facilities so the population never grew as overcrowded and unsafe as it has in recent years. However, after the Trump Administration’s crackdown on immigration the facility soon became overpopulated as migrants were detained for periods of weeks and months on end in unsafe conditions. 

This past year, due to the pandemic, President Trump invoked emergency powers under public health laws to halt most immigration. As such, the facility has been unused since March with thousands of immigrants turned back to Mexico. 

In the fight for immigration reform and as an effort to offer protection to young immigrants, a federal judge ordered last week for the Trump administration to stop expelling young people who arrive on their own looking for asylum in the U.S. 

The future of immigration reform 

While the news of the Ursula facility renovations is welcomed news to immigrant advocates, this is only the first step toward immigration reform at the border. Advocates cautioned that more fundamental changes will be necessary to ensure that migrants are no longer stranded in detention centers for prolonged periods of time. 

“This feels a little bit like window dressing. It is overdue from the perspective that no one should be housed in cages,” said Michael Bochenek, senior counsel in the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, in an article with the New York Times. 

“The more fundamental shift that needs to happen is rigorous application of federal law and an agency standard that calls for expeditious transfer to more suitable arrangements for children and families,” Mr. Bochenek continued. “Nobody was really looking out for the kids. All they had were mats and foil blankets,” he said, describing the conditions he witnessed when visiting the warehouse as part of a monitoring team in 2018. “We talked to teenage girls caring for toddlers in cages. We looked over and saw a boy 7 or 9 years old. The kid was beside himself in tears. He was in deep distress and there were no adults anywhere nearby to find out what was wrong.”

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Latinxs children detention centers

Protests in Elizabeth, NJ about immigrant children detention. Photo credit Chris Boese – Unsplash.com

It’s clear that the current system needs to be reformed. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to do his part to reverse the Trump administration’s approach to immigration and border control. He plans to cut off funds to the expanded border wall and restore the process for welcoming asylum applicants into the country while their cases are in progress. 

Renovations to the Ursula detention center facility are estimated to last 18 months, which will leave border agents without a large-volume facility if a new immigration surge occurs. Last month, over 69,000 migrants were taken into custody along the southern border. Most have been processed at smaller, less-crowded facilities. Still, this 21 percent increase in migrants since September suggests a growing increase in immigration as many individuals are fleeing Central America after recent hurricane devastation, economic distress, and coronavirus related hardships.