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20 on Hunger Strike and 14 Arrested: The Struggle to End ICE Detention in North Jersey Continues

Amidst mounting public pressure for North Jersey Counties to end their contractual relationships with ICE, the agency has been moving detainees at its whim.

Amba Guerguerian Jun 17

On Monday, immigrants detained by ICE in North Jersey went on yet another hunger strike. All of the remaining people detained by ICE at Bergen County Jail went on strike in protest of the jail’s conditions and to demand that they be released on parole.

“We are the only ICE detainees left in Bergen County Jail. Our total count is 38 and 80% of the guys left here with me are all green card holders that came to this country legally. We’re not contesting the fact that we haven’t done wrong. Yeah, we’ve been convicted of crimes and served our time, yet we’re serving more time in ICE detention just because we choose to fight out [deportation] cases. But we have children and family here in America. So we are asking for some kind of alternative to detention,” says an anonymous inmate who spoke with The Indypendent after skipping his third meal Monday night. 

“The movement to end ICE contracts in New Jersey and across the country is growing by the week and the uprising and protest of people inside the NJ facilities is a direct message to ICE, the Biden administration and all elected officials that they are demanding their release from immigration detention.”

“No matter what documents you produce, they still stick with the idea that if you’ve been convicted of crime you will forever be a danger to the community,” he says. “I know a guy who has nine certificates of rehabilitation while I was doing my time. No discipline or infractions. Every effort you make — they ask you for it but when you show it to them they don’t do anything.”

Our source has asked to stay anonymous for fear of retribution from ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement).  

Before the pandemic hit, the typical number of people detained by ICE in Bergen County Jail was around 500. In April, there were around 100 detained people in the jail. Over the past month, numbers have been dropping drastically. There are currently only 38 men left in detention. 

In addition to protesting for their release, the hunger strikers highlight the horrid conditions at Bergen County Jail. “You got mice going into your cell at night,” says our anonymous source who hasn’t breathed fresh air once since he was transferred to the jail last fall.  

The remaining detainees are afraid of being sent to jails far away from their families — in Buffalo or Louisiana — like their counterparts who were transferred away over the past few weeks. 

“They took two at four o’clock [Monday] morning. We don’t know where they took them to. ICE is secretly trying to smuggle us out of here given that we’re asking for our release. All of us left are from Jersey. Our families reside in Jersey. If they move us out of state, it’s gonna affect our families. All our lawyers are around here.”

There is no communication from ICE as to why or where people are being moved, says our source. All of the detainees from New York have been transferred or deported and only those from Jersey remain, he says. He sees the moves as a power flex on the part of ICE, who is in an offensive position as their contractual relationships with New Jersey counties has come under recent scrutiny of late.

Josue, who is detained at nearby Hudson County Jail, which also has a contract with ICE to house New York and New Jersey detainees who are awaiting deportation trials, reports a similar circumstance — people being moved arbitrarily. There are currently 34 detainees left at Hudson County Jail, compared to around 50 in April and 800 pre-COVID. 

Josue spoke with The Indy about the current atmosphere at Hudson County Jail: 

Now they say they’re not going to move us any more. But they’ve been lying to us. I don’t know if I should believe that, that they’re not gonna move us anymore. They already said that a month ago but then they kept moving people. They’re telling them they’re moving them because they have a long case or are on their second circuit. But I’m on my second circuit and I haven’t been moved. 

Everybody is — we’re living day-by-day — cause nobody’s really telling us about what’s gonna happen. There’s only eight of us out of 15 in my unit. Everybody got moved to Alabama or Louisiana. 

Anybody would be scared if they come in and tell you to pack up and get ready in the middle of the night and you don’t even know where you’re going. And if they take you on a plane, you are really afraid of where you’re going. You don’t even know if they’re taking you straight out of the United States. My friend Ysidrio that left on Tuesday, they didn’t even tell him where he was going.

I had a bond hearing to be released on parole on Monday but they just denied my bond again. The judge, she was not being fair. She didn’t even take a look at the 200 pages of evidence my lawyer printed.  

On May 13, Josue went on hunger strike because he and other detainees were told by an ICE official that ICE was trying to transfer groups of people out of the jail each Tuesday until there were none left. He said the reason for the alleged depopulation was that a bill that would ban new ICE detention facilities in New Jersey and end some of the current contracts is likely to pass through the New Jersey State legislature and that ICE wants to transfer people out before this happens

This set off a flurry of activity outside the jail bars from lawyers and advocates. ICE representatives came back later that week saying that the mass transfer was only a rumor and that no more transfers would occur. That, though, did not play out, as reported by Josue. 

Josue says he hasn’t seen the officer who initially told the detainees that the whole jail would be emptied out since around May 18, when he came back to the jail and told them he had been wrong. He used to see the official often, weekly or bi-weekly, he says. 

Now the detainees at Hudson County wonder if what they were initially told is true, as they are seeing their friends sent away bit by bit.

“ICE is transferring detainees from one state to another but they are not cooperating with the law,” says Marcial Morales, a former detainee who was released on hunger strike in November and has been helping organize hunger strikes on the inside ever since. “They are supposed to notify their attorneys that they have been moved but they don’t do that. They do whatever they want, because they can,” he says.  

“Sometimes a lawyer receives a letter notifying them their client has been moved weeks later after the fact,” Tania Mattos of Freedom for Immigrants told The Indy

“We are seeing transfers from these facilities because ICE has decided to transfer people to other states,” says Mattos. “The movement to end ICE contracts in New Jersey and across the country is growing by the week and the uprising and protest of people inside the NJ facilities is a direct message to ICE, the Biden administration and all elected officials that they are demanding their release from immigration detention. The transferring of people by ICE to other states is a cruel and irresponsible tactic. There’s nothing stopping ICE from releasing people back home and with their families.”

The hunger strikers at Bergen County Jail are facing fierce, but not uncommon retribution from ICE and the jail. 

“An hour ago, a sergeant came into the New Jersey detainee unit at Bergen and threatened that if anyone continues with the hunger strike, they will ‘pack them up’ and take away their commissary support. Twenty-two people said they would continue their hunger strike and have been put in a different unit, South 8, without access to the commissary indefinitely,” read a message sent to advocates yesterday by Mariama Diallo of the Borderless Existence Initiative, who is in contact with people detained at Bergen County Jail. 

As of this morning, 19 people remain fasting. They are currently locked up inside their cells all day, an often successful tactic used to pressure protesters to break their strike. 

“Just chanting ‘Let them go!’ doesn’t work.”

When activists got wind of the transfers and deportations happening at Bergen County Jail, around 20 of them held an overnight vigil across the street from the jail on June 7 for Marvin Peña, who was to be deported the morning of June 8. Peña was initially detained because of a marijuana possession offense, which is now legal in New York, where he was arrested. 

On the morning of June 8, some of the protesters approached the jail gates, hoping to block the deportation van with their bodies as it exited, and, ideally, block the deportation all together. 

As the unmarked deportation van exited the jail premises, protesters stood or laid in front of it. As they were arrested another group would take their place, who were subsequently arrested themselves. The demonstrators, who purposefully made their bodies go limp when apprehended by the police, were dragged away by Bergen County deputies.

Fourteen of the around 20 people protesting were arrested. One protester was charged with assaulting an officer for running towards him as she hurried to get in front of the ICE van. All 14 were charged with fourth degree felony rioting, trespassing, disorderly conduct and failure to disperse.

“We knew that when the van came, we had to stand in front of the van, stop the van,” said Sergio Tupac Uzurin, one of the arrestees. “Just chanting, ‘Let them go!’ doesn’t work.”

“Some of us got together when the pandemic started because we knew Covid was going to ravage prisons. We take inspiration from Lynn, Massachusets; Bend, Oregon and recently Galsgow, Scotland where people just got in front of vans and stopped them. We realized we needed to be ready to do that in the metro area,” said Uzurin.

The arrested protesters were successful in wreaking enough havoc to stop the deportation/transfer van from making it to the airport in time. Marvin Peña’s deportation was stayed for two weeks. He will again be deportable as of this Tuesday, June 22. 

For frequent updates on this issue, keep up up with Ridgewood For Black Lives, Movimiento Cosecha NYC, or Abolish ICE NY-NJ.

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