NJ Senate Votes To End Immigration Detention

By Jennifer Doherty
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Law360 (June 24, 2021, 4:43 PM EDT) -- New Jersey is on track to join California and become the first East Coast state to ban U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities following a vote Thursday.

The New Jersey Senate passed A. 5207 by a vote of 23 to 15. The legislation prohibits state agencies and private jails from entering into new agreements or renewing deals with federal immigration authorities to hold individuals on civil immigration violations.

Immigrant advocacy groups, including the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, were quick to celebrate the win, with the organization's executive director Amy Torres touting it as an opportunity for the Garden State to position itself as a "national leader."

"The state-wide ban would confirm the message that continues to be raised at the local level — profiting off of pain and family separation contradicts New Jersey values," Torres said in a statement. "Most importantly, banning future ICE detention grants advocates and attorneys the necessary breathing room to fight for releases and put an end to our state's existing agreements without the threat of a new contract burying our efforts."

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey also celebrated Thursday's vote, issuing a statement from policy director Sarah Fajardo. 

"New Jersey took its place among the states to say no to the cruelty of immigration detention, and passing this legislation sends an important message about what — and who — New Jerseyans stand for," Fajardo said.

The state Senate's approval followed the state General Assembly's adoption of the bill last week. It will now head to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy, who has not indicated whether he intends to sign, though the local lawmakers behind the legislation have expressed confidence that he will.

A similar bill is currently up for signature by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in Illinois, following the state legislature's passage of the Illinois Way Forward Act. In 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill to phase out immigration detention in the Golden State.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed related legislation earlier this year banning for-profit prisons in his state. The bill targeted the state's only immigration detention center, which is run by The GEO Group Inc.

ICE currently oversees five detention facilities in New Jersey under its New York City and Newark field offices. Private prison company CoreCivic runs the Elizabeth Detention Center.

Ryan Gustin, public affairs manager for CoreCivic, emphasized the company's "valued but limited role" in the federal immigration system in a statement to Law360. The prison company has operated the Elizabeth Detention Center since 1997 and currently employs 140 people there, according to Gustin. 

"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," Gustin said.

ICE also contracts with the Bergen County Sheriff's Office, which manages immigration detention at the Bergen County Jail. Last winter, conditions inside the Bergen County Jail triggered detainee hunger strikes, which drew protests outside.

In January, as part of a nationwide class action over ICE's implementation of COVID-19 safety protocols in detention facilities, attorneys for the detainee class reported that the jail was continuously overcapacity by 41% to 71% between October and December 2020, according to data provided by ICE. The sheriff's office denied those claims, saying ICE's data was incorrect.

Representatives for ICE and the Bergen County Sheriff's Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday's vote.

"Allowing ICE to house detainees in New Jersey jails is a tacit approval of an immigration policy that tears apart families, destabilizes communities and even deports parents of United States citizens," said state Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex/Passaic, a co-sponsor of the bill, following the vote.

"Detainees are denied due process as well as adequate medical treatment. These policies continue the systemic racism of the incarceration of black and brown people" she continued. "With the passage of this bill, New Jersey will join other states in leading the fight to end this form of immigration detention."

--Additional reporting by Alyssa Aquino. Editing by Andrew Cohen.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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