All photos by the author.
On Saturday afternoon, outside of the Hudson County Correctional Center in Kearny, New Jersey, a member of the local police department paced back and forth angrily muttering under his breath and carrying a canister of high-powered pepper spray with the safety pin removed. Another officer stood nearby in tactical gear, a gas mask clipped to his kevlar vest, a rifle in his grip. Another officer, further back and standing under a tree, brandished a tear gas launcher.
In front of the jail’s entrance, Kearny police, Hudson County police and some of the jail’s correction officers stood in a line forming a riot shield-enforced wall between themselves and around thirty protesters who were calling for the release of ICE detainees being held in the jail.
“Releases not transfers!” chanted the crowd of activists over police sirens. “Fuck your borders! Fuck your wall! We will make your system fall!”
Hudson, Essex and Bergen counties in North Jersey have recently come under fire for keeping people detained by ICE in the deplorable conditions of their local jails in return for tens of millions of dollars a year from ICE.
Detained people and their allies — loved ones, immigration justice advocate groups, community organizers — have been regularly protesting New Jersey’s lucrative deals with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigrants awaiting deportation trials for the past year and a half. The demonstration outside of the Hudson County jail was the latest iteration of this ongoing action.
In response to this backlash from the public for cooperating with ICE, New Jersey entities across the state have been severing ties with the agency. But rather than releasing the detained people on parole to await their trial, though, ICE has been moving under the radar, maintaining their hold on prisoners by transferring them to other jails and prisons that hold contracts with ICE or privately-run detention centers out of state.
When a person is transferred, they leave their support networks, have to reacclimate to a new jail environment and, depending on where they’re moved, might have to find a new lawyer. They might lose the commissary money and personal belongings they had in the previous jail.
Despite urges from Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez denouncing out-of-state transfers, ICE continues its relocation efforts unimpeded, often separating detainees from their families and legal counsel.
“Our main goal is just to make sure that transfers don’t happen in the shadows. There is already a lack of communication between ICE to the lawyers and people inside detention and families of when transfer will happen,” said Haydi T., an organizer with Movimiento Cosecha, a grassroots, immigrant justice organization. “[We’re] making sure that we still keep the heat on the senators in New Jersey — Booker, Menendez — and also the justice officials.”
Arriving just before 1:30 p.m. in order to disrupt any transfers that may have been scheduled for that afternoon — transfers normally occur on Tuesdays and Saturdays — over two dozen activists led by Movimiento Cosecha and organizations such as ICE Watch-NJ, ICE Watch-Bronx and the North NJ Democratic Socialists of America moved quickly to block the prison’s driveways.
Stopping jail traffic from leaving or entering the facility, activists used the same demonstration methods they employed at a similar demonstration in July and chained their arms together inside “lockboxes” made to form a human chain the police would struggle to break.
For Sid, the decision to attend the event was inspired by the situation of a close friend in Mexico who is unsafe but fears coming to the U.S. because of law enforcement.
Over the honks of angry guards eager to head home, protesters laid down on the driveways, some even wearing adult diapers in case they had to remain in the lockboxes for hours on end. Others unfurled banners and demanded through megaphones that ICE be abolished. Police reinforcements quickly descended on the jail and a tense standoff lasted for nearly four hours, though no arrests were made.
For Sid, one of the group’s “arrestees” who chained themselves in a lockbox and were prepared to be detained by the police, the decision to attend the event was inspired by the situation of a close friend in Mexico who is unsafe but fears coming to the U.S. because of law enforcement. “I’m here in solidarity with her because I feel like if people are not able to access safety and well-being where they are, they should be able to go and get relief [elsewhere]. I want to try to make the area that I’m in like that.”
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According to the U.S. Department of Justice, jails in New Jersey have the highest per-capita death rate among the 30 states with the biggest jail populations. New Jersey prisons also have the highest coronavirus death rates in the U.S. Since the ‘90s, counties have been making millions of dollars profiting from ICE contracts where they receive $110-$120 a night per immigrant detainee they hold.
Now, after what at first seemed like a victory in getting counties to break ties with ICE, non-violent immigrant detainees are getting caught in a “transfer roulette” that promises to keep their freedom and reunification with their families out of reach.
The deadline ICE set to completely remove its detainees from the Hudson County jail is November first. As that day nears, activists hope that now is the time for justice to finally prevail and for people to be released on parole rather than transferred like those who were made to leave Essex County Correctional Facility in June and July of this year.
Essex County’s jail, which was known as a hotbed for violence before the recent uptick in immigration justice activism, was the first to stop holding people detained by ICE (although they did not officially nullify their contract with the entity). Nearly all of the detained people were transferred, not released, to places as far as Arkansas and Miami.
Recently, officials capped the number of detained people held at the Hudson County facility at 50. On September 10, about 45 people were being held there and only five of them were released rather than transferred. Segundo is among the 12 people detained by ICE that remain at Hudson County Correctional Facility.
The story of Segundo and his sister Ruth, who attended Saturday’s event, is quite common among immigrant families. Segundo, 50, had lived in the U.S. for 27 years after immigrating from Ecuador before he was arrested by ICE. For the past five months, Segundo has been held in the Hudson County jail, separated from his wife and son who are struggling to adjust to life in his absence.
According to Ruth, Segundo was informed by officials at the jail that he was soon to be transferred to Orange County Correctional facility in New York, although he does not know when exactly. For Ruth, Segundo’s transfer would be devastating.
“I’m just afraid that I wouldn’t know how to get there. I wouldn’t know where he is. I’m afraid,” said Ruth via a translator. “It has changed my view [of this country] because I was hoping that when I came to this country, they were just going to welcome us, welcome everyone regardless of if we were documented or not,” she said in tears.
“The best case scenario,” said activist Sami Disu as he lay on the ground, both arms in a lockbox as police loomed above, “would be that president Biden actually honors the promises he made to many of us on the Democratic left, who really had issues with him because of various policies he has implemented or supported in the past. We were willing to look past all of that, just to give him the chance to get into office, somebody other than Trump, and to finally move this nation away from such wicked laws that endlessly damage families.”
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