Judge Keeps NJ Immigrant Detention Center Open, as Fight Continues

    New Jersey’s last immigrant detention center, in the city of Elizabeth, will remain open after a judge’s decision. First activists, then elected officials have been working to shut down the facility and end immigrant detention in the state. But the center’s for-profit operator sued to stop New Jersey closing its doors—and for now, at least, has succeeded.

    The Elizabeth Detention Center is located just south of Newark International Airport, less than 15 miles from Manhattan. It’s run by CoreCivic. Formerly called Corrections Corporation of America, the company owns and operates private prisons and detention facilities in 24 states.

    In 2021, Governor Phil Murphy (D) signed into law a bill to effectively end immigrant detention in New Jersey. The legislation states that no government agency or private company can “enter into, renew, or extend any immigration detention agreement.” Advocates hoped this would spell the end of the Elizabeth center, because CoreCivic’s existing contract with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is expiring on August 31.

    But CoreCivic sued in federal court. And on August 29, United States District Court Judge Robert Kirsch ruled in favor of the company, stopping the state of New Jersey from enforcing its law.

    “The statute is a dagger aimed at the heart of the federal government’s immigration enforcement mission and operations,” Judge Kirsch wrote. He argued that the Elizabeth facility, as the only immigration detention center within 60 miles of New York City, is important to keeping ICE running.

    “Private detention facilities threaten the public health and safety of New Jerseyans, including when used for immigration purposes. We will be appealing this decision.”

    “We are disappointed with today’s ruling, which we view as interfering with New Jersey’s right to protect its residents,” a spokesperson for New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin told Filter in an email. “Private detention facilities threaten the public health and safety of New Jerseyans, including when used for immigration purposes. We will be appealing this decision.”

    In July, the Biden administration’s Department of Justice had filed a statement with the court in support of keeping the facility open—calling it “mission critical,” and warning that closure would lead to the release of “certain dangerous noncitizens” and make both ICE and immigration courts’ work more difficult.

    “Our sole job has been and continues to be to help the government solve problems in ways it could not do alone—to help manage unprecedented humanitarian crises, dramatically improve the standard of care for vulnerable people, and meet critical public safety needs efficiently and innovatively,” said Ryan Gustin, public affairs director for CoreCivic, in a statement shared with Filter.

    The Elizabeth facility has been accused of numerous human rights violations over the years—including use of solitary confinement as punishment, as well as medical neglect, poor food, unsanitary areas, and a lack of sunlight, fresh air or outdoor access for people detained. Two people have died there after reportedly being denied prompt medical care: 56-year old Victor Antonio Ramirez-Reyes in 2011, and 52-year-old Boubacar Bah in 2008.

    “Medical neglect is a common practice,” Yanet Candelario told Filter. Candelario is the president of the Mami Chelo Foundation, which advocates for and supports immigrants who face detention and deportation. She was formerly detained at the Elizabeth facility.

    “Everyone went to bed with fevers or the flu, and they wouldn’t call medical until the next day,” she said. “When you went with a real issue, they would tell people they were acting.”

    “She said, ‘This is America; if you don’t like, it go back to your fucking country.’”

    Candelario recounted an incident when she’d learned of the death of her brother-in-law, and was so shocked that her blood pressure increased. When she tried to alert staff, they ignored her concerns, she said, and she was only able to get help after appealing to higher-up officers.

    “In fact my blood pressure was high; I have the medical records to prove it because I [obtained them] after,” she said. “When I came back, the officer shouted at me, ‘I wish your head explodes.'”

    “I said, ‘You can’t talk to me like that.’ She said, ‘This is America; if you don’t like, it go back to your fucking country.’ I said, ‘Which one? I’m a world citizen.’”

    Candelario said she was threatened with retaliation for trying to address how she’d been treated. She participated in several hunger strikes.

    “The judge indicated, only two people died at this facility,” Sally Pillay, director at the Mami Chelo Foundation, told Filter. “No thought or consideration was given to those lives lost. This judge put the profit-making aspect of keeping this contract open above those lives.”

    Molly Linhorst, staff attorney for the ACLU of New Jersey, explained to Filter that the CoreCivic contract will now likely renew for one year, and the Elizabeth center will remain in operation. But the legal case is set to continue.

    Attorney General Platkin’s planned appeal will take it to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. Little legal precedent exists to incidate how this will ultimately be ruled. A decision will likely rest on the court’s interpretation of the US Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, and its understanding of any conflict between the interests of the state and those of the federal government.

    “Regardless of the litigation, President Biden has the power to shut down the detention center for good.”

    “Regardless of the litigation, President Biden has the power to shut down the detention center for good,” Pillay said. “We are demanding that he shut it down; he pledged during his campaign to end private prisons.”

    Biden signed an executive order early in his tenure to end use of private prisons at the federal level. But it did not apply to immigrant detention, when three in four immigrants detained by ICE are held in private facilities.

    The Mami Chelo Foundation is urging immigration rights advocates to contact the White House directly. It meanwhile anticipates that local activists will put pressure on Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage and the City Council.

    “Closing this place is one of the few steps for healing to begin for many people whose lives they destroyed,” Candelario said.


    Photograph of protest outside Clarkson S. Fisher Federal Building and United States Courthouse by Mami Chelo Foundation via Facebook

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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