Judge lets NJ’s last ICE jail stay open, calls ban a ‘dagger’ at heart of federal enforcement

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By Dan Sears

New Jersey’s last immigration detention facility can renew its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and remain open in Elizabeth despite a state law banning such agreements, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Kirsch is a blow to detainees and immigrant advocates who for years have complained about conditions at the Elizabeth Detention Center run by CoreCivic. It also interrupts a years-long push by advocates to end ICE detention in New Jersey, which prompted the state law banning public and private entities from renewing or entering into detention contracts with the federal agency.

“While we are bitterly disappointed in today’s decision, we also know this is not the final step,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.

The law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in August 2021, effectively banned CoreCivic, which has run the private immigrant jail in Elizabeth for 20 years, from renewing its ICE contract that expires in two days. CoreCivic took the state to court and on Tuesday a judge said New Jersey could not enforce the law against the company.

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“The statute is a dagger aimed at the heart of the federal government’s immigration enforcement mission and operations,” Kirsch wrote in his ruling.

He said it’s the federal government’s responsibility to enforce civil immigration law, and without the Elizabeth Detention Center — which can hold about 300 detainees and is the only ICE facility within 60 miles of New York City — officials would have nowhere to hold individuals.

“We appreciate that we had the opportunity to present our positions to the court and are grateful that we have the privilege of continuing to support the vital mission of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security,” said Ryan Gustin, a spokesman for CoreCivic.

A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon, asking when the agency would renew its contract with CoreCivic.

Previously, the Department of Justice defended keeping the privately run Elizabeth jail open, saying in a 51-page briefing that the facility was “mission critical” given its proximity to international airports in Newark and New York.

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Yanet Candelario, a former detainee at the Elizabeth center and founder of the immigrant support group The Mami Chelo Foundation, said she’d expected the Biden administration to end what she called “the Trump error of terror” for immigrants.

“I believed he would make a difference in a country where immigrants have fewer rights. I don’t think Biden knows that people are dying in immigration detention because they have been denied medical attention, but I also expect him to keep his promises and end a system that denies us our humanity,” she said.

The state Attorney General’s Office, which defended the state, said it planned to appeal the ruling.

“We are disappointed with today’s ruling, which we view as interfering with New Jersey’s right to protect its residents,” Michael Symons, a spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General, said. “Private detention facilities threaten the public health and safety of New Jerseyans, including when used for immigration purposes,.

Molly Linhorst, an attorney with the ACLU of New Jersey, said the ruling didn’t mean county jails would begin jailing migrants again.

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“There is still a prohibition in place on state and local facilities like Essex, Bergen, Hudson who previously had contracts to hold people for ICE. Those contracts as we know are no longer active and nothing that’s happened today impacts that,” she said.

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