Immigrant advocates alarmed by prospect of new immigrant jail in Newark

By: - June 17, 2024 7:25 am

A federal judge's 2023 order allowing a private firm to run an immigrant jail in Elizabeth makes the opening of a new one more likely, advocates fear. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Immigrant advocates in New Jersey are alarmed that a federal judge’s 2023 ruling that allowed a private immigrant jail to remain open could mean there is little they can do to prevent another immigrant detention center from opening in Newark.

“My concern is that New Jersey may become a private prison-only immigration detention state, and that’s really terrifying because all immigration detention is terrible, but private prisons in particular,” said Katy Sastre, director of First Friends of New Jersey and New York.

Dolly Hernandez, executive director of immigrant rights advocacy organization Casa Freehold, said she’s troubled by a recent letter from the state Attorney General’s Office to the federal judge that could make it easier for the new jail to open.

“It’s time to stop dehumanizing people. We are not money makers,” she said.

Gov. Phil Murphy in 2021 signed a law that bars public and private entities from entering into contracts to house immigrant detainees. But U.S. District Judge Robert Kirsch last year declared the law partially unconstitutional, saying the state cannot prevent the federal government from contracting with a private entity to jail immigrants. Kirsch’s ruling allowed private firm CoreCivic to continue operating its immigrant jail in Elizabeth. Attorney General Matt Platkin’s office has appealed.

In April, a second company, GEO Group, sued Murphy and Platkin, arguing that the 2021 law was preventing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from signing a contract with the company to jail immigrants at Delaney Hall, a facility it owns near Essex County’s jail. That case is also going before Kirsch.

On April 25, Solicitor General Jeremy M. Feigenbaum, writing on behalf of Platkin’s office, told Kirsch that as long as Kirsch’s order regarding CoreCivic is still in effect, the state would not attempt to enforce the 2021 law with regard to GEO Group.

Most of New Jersey’s congressional delegation signed recent letters to federal officials asking them to back away from immigrant detention contracts here, citing President Biden’s prior comments criticizing privately run prisons. Rep. Rob Menendez (D-08) told the New Jersey Monitor that the state’s D.C. Democrats have been vocal in their opposition to migrant detention centers in conversations with federal officials.

Rep. Rob Menendez is one of the group of congressional Democrats who signed a letter asking federal officials not to allow a new immigrant jail to open in Newark. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

“It’s not in alignment with how we want to operate, how we want to reflect our values to the community, having a privately-run detention center is not an alignment there,” Menendez said. “So while we can’t get the entire fix that we want today, we can’t allow bad decisions to be made.”

An ICE spokesman said there’s no contract with GEO Group to house immigrants at Delaney Hall and declined to comment on pending contract negotiations. Currently, 243 detainees are housed at CoreCivic’s Elizabeth Detention Center, he said.

Immigrant advocates are criticizing Platkin’s office for telling Kirsch it would not enforce the 2021 law with regard to GEO Group. Michael Symons, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the office had to take that position because “there were no material differences between the federal constitutional legal claims brought by GEO Group and by CoreCivic.”

“While the district court’s injunction remains in effect, we have acknowledged that we cannot enforce that state-law provision against any private detention facility. But we await oral argument on our fully-briefed appeal, and we hope to overturn the injunction,” Symons said.

Menendez called the legal terrain “challenging” but said he remains hopeful that an appeal will be successful.

“We’re going to take an exhaustive approach to make sure that any opportunity that we have to challenge the continuation of the (Elizabeth Detention Center) or the reopening of Delaney Hall, we do,” he said.

Life for immigrants picked up by ICE, meanwhile, has gotten worse, immigrant advocates say.

Sastre said some detainees have been moved from the Elizabeth jail to one in Moshannon Valley in Pennsylvania — that’s nearly 300 miles away — and families don’t find out until they show up for visitation.

Hernandez recalled a local resident who was picked up by ICE in late April and taken to Elizabeth. By the time Hernandez and the detainee’s wife showed up a few hours later, officials told them he wasn’t there and was being transferred to Moshannon. He’s been there awaiting trial for about a month and a half, Hernandez said.

“I think things haven’t changed. I think they’ve gotten worse,” she said.

According to ICE detention management data, detainees remain at the Elizabeth jail for an average of 17 days before being moved.

“Our standard is that immigration detention shouldn’t exist at all, but the way that it is currently being done in New Jersey, in New York, it’s causing a lot of confusion and fear,” Sastre said. “And I think it’s probably on purpose. Most of ICE’s tactics tend to be for the purpose of causing fear.”

The Elizabeth Detention Center can house a maximum of 300 people. In its lawsuit, GEO Group says its contract with ICE could lead to up to 600 detainees at Delaney Hall.

Sastre fears the increase in beds will lead to an increase in ICE arrests.

“It’s really concerning that we just might be inviting more of that kind of treatment of our community into New Jersey,” she said. “My gut feeling is that we’re going to end up with GEO Group and CoreCivic operating in New Jersey, and that is terrifying to me.”


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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting. You can reach her at [email protected].

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