JERSEY CITY, NJ - After more than nine hours of public comment and over 100 speakers in opposition to the proposal, a divided Hudson County Freeholder board voted 6-3 in favor of approving a 10-year contract with the federal Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) Tuesday. Under the agreement the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny will continue to house federal immigrant detainees at a fee of $120 per day. 

These funds, which in 2020 have amounted to $7.4 million, helps fund operations at the facility that has seen a decline in its regular prison population partly due to change in law such as bail reform. They also, DeGise noted earlier, help pay the salary of 3,000 workers, improve parks, and provide other essential services.

RELATED STORY -  Detainees, Families, County Lose if ICE Contract Not Renewed, DeGise Says

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The total population of the facility, which typically holds prisoners serving sentences of a year or less, or those who have been unable to raise bail, is slightly more than 800 of which about 87 are currently ICE detainees. An ICE detainee can be held indefinitely while waiting for their cases to be adjudicated, a point of contention among those in opposition to the continuance of the practice. Hudson County is one of four immigration detention centers in New Jersey sued by federal ICE to house detainees during processing their legal issues.

The contract’s opponents, progressive professors, immigration advocates and others from throughout the region – including council members from Jersey City and Hoboken – hope to shut down the operations in Hudson County as part of a long term strategy to shut down ICE operations nationwide.

“This is very much the Civil Rights movement of our time,” said Freeholder Bill O’Dea, who along with Freeholders Joel Torres and Fanny Cedeno, voted against the renewal. Torres, who was not backed by the Hudson County Democratic Organization and lost his reelection bid this year, attributes his defeat to opposing this contract renewal in 2018. 

Freeholder Chairman Anthony Vainieri, Vice Chairman Anthony Romano, Freeholders Al Cifelli, Ken Kopacz, Caridad Rodriguez, and Jerry Walker voted for the contract, with Rodrguez saying that while she sympathized with the plight of some of the detainees, there is a legal process that they must followed.

Echoing a concern Hudson County Tom DeGise shared with TAPinto earlier this week, as well as one he said detainees themselves brought to him, Freeholder Al Cifelli – who took the brunt of negative remarks from the speakers – shared that letting the contract expire would have a negative impact on the detainees that, if not housed in Kearny, would likely be sent to locations hundreds of miles away where they’d have less access to advocates, attorneys, or family. 

Hearkening back to concerns of the past, most notably two years ago, when county officials came under intense scrutiny because of several deaths at the facility as well as questionable conditions in which prisoners and detainees were being held, several of those calling in to the remote session again cited those that persist.

These past issues have been rectified, Freeholder Anthony Romano and Warden Ron Edwards said, pointing to more than $5.6 million in recent upgrades to the facility, as well as the expansion of various social, learning, and health programs. 

For most, the main argument against renewal of the contract was what they saw as a 2018 commitment by county lawmakers to phase it out. At the time, freeholders approved a modified contract for two years even though they were considering one for the same length as the one approved Tuesday. In response to protests, Council Executive Tom DeGise said the county would look to phase out the contract that the county has had since 1996 by 2020.

Included in the list of local lawmakers speaking in opposition to the contract were Hoboken Councilmembers Emily Jabbour and Phill Cohen, as well as Jersey City Council members James Solomon and Rolando Lavarro who also co-signed a joint letter that included the names of their colleagues Council President Joyce Watterman and councilmembers Mira Prinz-Arey and Yousef Saleh.

“We believe that Hudson County should honor their 2018 commitment to exit the contract with ICE,” that letter read. “As representatives of the nation’s most diverse city, we must do all that is in our power to end ICE’s system of immigrant detention that has led to so many abuses.”

While many hope that President Joe Biden will take a less aggressive stance towards detaining and deporting immigrants than President Donald Trump has, some negated that argument sharing their belief that President Barack Obama – a Democrat – was equally aggressive. DeGise, however, has said the change in administration does matter and that with the President Trump era coming to an end in the new year now is the time to sit down with new federal leadership, including at ICE, and make it very clear that when it comes to housing the detainees “what we can and won’t do in Hudson County.”

County officials, including DeGise, have also noted the seriousness of the crimes committed by many of the detainees, including one facing  murder charges and 18 being charged with sex offenses, a reminder that even if the agreement between Hudson County and ICE those being held would not be free. O’Dea, meanwhile pointed out that many continued to be held even though the time they would have served for less serious crimes, such as DWI, under different circumstances.

During this latest round of protests, advocates also shared  that COVID-19 increases the risk of detainees and guards, and claimed detainees were in lock down most of the day each day. Romano, however, disputed this saying that conditions for detainees were actually significantly better than traditional prisoners as they are not in a lock down.

“The detainees are not restricted that way,” he said. “Their housing is like a campus.”

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