A group of immigrants under federal detention have reportedly been holding a hunger strike. Beginning on December 28, it took place at jail facilities in both Hudson and Essex Counties, immediately outside the New York City area. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency responsible for immigrant detention, disputed the initial reports and continues to dispute the details. Facing retaliation, most of the strikers were forced to suspend their protest on January 11, according to advocates.
“We are asking ICE and its people to give us the possibility and opportunity to continue our cases from our homes instead of from prison,” reads testimony from a hunger striker, translated from Spanish and shared on Twitter on January 7 by the Abolish ICE NY-NJ Coalition. “We are tired of the inhumane treatment we receive from the authorities. We are tired of being treated like the worst criminals.”
ICE retaliated against the strikers by denying them water and access to basic needs, as well as by denying access to legal counsel, according to a statement published to Instagram on January 11. Many of the strikers effectively ended their protest as a result.
ICE initially denied the strikes were happening at all. The agency then changed its story.
The strikes were held at the Hudson County jail in Kearney and the Essex County jail in Newark, just across the river. Importantly, the people involved are detained not in federal ICE facilities but in county-owned facilities. The respective county governments argue that they don’t have the authority to release immigrants from detention, because only ICE can do so.
The two counties—along with neighboring Bergen County—contract with ICE to lock people up while they await immigration or deportation proceedings. Essex County, for example, is paid $117 per day by ICE for each immigrant it holds. Advocates estimate that in 2019, the county made $15-20 million in profit from this contract.
The immigrants reportedly went on strike because of a rapid surge in coronavirus in the jail facilities. In the Hudson County jail, at least 33 people, including county and federal detainees, had tested positive for COVID-19 by January 3. The county claims that none of the detained immigrants have tested positive—little comfort given how rapidly coronavirus can spread within a jail facility.
In the Essex County jail, meanwhile, 14 immigrants have tested positive for coronavirus. That’s in addition to over 130 jail staff who were infected, as well as other people incarcerated by the county and federal governments.
ICE initially denied the strikes were happening at all. The agency then changed its story, issuing the following statement to Patch last week:
“[ICE] fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers. Qualified medical personnel at each facility explain the negative health effects of not eating to detainees engaged in a hunger strike and closely monitor their food and water intake.”
Nonetheless, ICE reports only 10 immigrants hunger-striking at the Essex County jail, while advocates say the true number was up to 86. In the Hudson County jail, testimony suggests that over 60 strikers were at one point participating.
“ICE is denying access to commissary, denying basic necessities, and transferring people to other facilities.”
Reports from ICE and immigrant advocates conflict in terms of more than just numbers. “The jail staff and ICE are responding [to strikes] by denying access to commissary, denying basic necessities, and transferring people to other facilities,” a spokesperson for the Abolish ICE NY-NJ Coalition told Filter while the strike was still ongoing. “This has obvious detrimental effects on people’s mental and physical health, and the transfers increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.”
Immigrants and their advocates argue they can be safely released from ICE detention because most of the people concerned are detained solely due to their immigration status. In fact, about 60 percent of immigrants detained by ICE nationwide have no criminal record, and data show that those who do have records predominantly have them for misdemeanors and petty offenses.
ICE has faced heavy criticism throughout the COVID-19 pandemic over its handling of immigrant detention facilities. Filter reported in April about a federal lawsuit filed against ICE in Florida, alleging that its practice of “cohorting” immigrants suspected of coronavirus was helping spread the virus “like wildfire” in its facility and directly contradicted public health guidance.
The Hudson and Essex County jails in New Jersey have also faced direct criticism for their conditions. After a federal investigation revealed health and safety risks at the Newark facility, the county convened an independent task force to oversee the jail’s conditions. The Hudson County jail has also faced allegations of widespread medical neglect towards detained immigrants in years past, resulting in deaths. It has since committed to upgrading its facilities.
The hunger strikes in both facilities followed earlier strikes in March at the onset of the pandemic. Nearby Bergen County jail also witnessed a month-long hunger strike in November 2020, resulting in two people being released and others being transferred to outside facilities. Then as now, advocates allege that ICE took retaliatory measures against strikers.