A group of 30 immigrant detainees in Newark, New Jersey, were quietly transferred to an unknown location in the early hours of Tuesday. Among them were some men who were on a hunger strike for over a day who had worries about being sent to another location and were demanding to be released.
Essex county chief of staff Philip Alagia confirmed 30 detainees under the jurisdiction of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) were transferred out of the facility, and that the Ice population in the facility is now down to 76 men.
Abolish Ice NY-NJ, a coalition of organizations seeking to shut down prisons and immigration detention centers, believes 39 detainees were on a hunger strike before the transfer, and that among their concerns were their video tablets being taken away – preventing them from communicating with attorneys and families about their potential move.
Essex county correctional center announced in April it would end its 13-year relationship detaining immigrants with Ice, and would instead house an average of 300 prisoners from another shuttering facility in Union county. The Newark jail, said county executive Joseph DiVincenzo, could not house those prisoners as well as the Ice detainees, which numbered at 165 in April. The facility has 2,300 beds, which are mostly used by the county, not Ice.
“This is an act of powerful, organized resistance, and it is not an easy choice,” said the coalition in a text message to the Guardian. “The people have shown time and time again that they are willing to put their bodies on the line for freedom. These transfers put them at risk for being force-fed, and in some cases, deported.”
According to Ice’s detention guidelines, a hunger strike is only recognized by the agency after nine consecutive meal denials.
Abolish Ice NY-NJ said Ice has the authority to release people in its custody at any time, and condemned the Biden administration for its role in the transfers.
“By transferring folks to different immigrant prisons outside of the state, the government is reversing the progress made by New Jersey communities and lawmakers who are close to enacting historic legislation to end the state’s involvement in the inhumane immigration detention system,” the coalition said.
Several Ice detention centers remain in the state, including at Elizabeth detention center, Hudson county correctional center, and Bergen county Jail.
In 2018, Ice paid Essex county among the highest bed rates in the US – $124 per detainee per night. The county received nearly $35m from the agency for that year, which saw the Ice detainee population balloon to nearly 800.
New Jersey courts ordered the release of many immigrant detainees to house arrest during the pandemic because it was nearly impossible to social distance at the jail, and several had chronic diseases that made them more susceptible to Covid. Essex’s population dropped to around 200 Ice detainees by the end of 2020.
The state legislature and senate voted in the past two weeks for a bill prohibiting state agencies and private jails from entering into new agreements with Ice to hold immigrants.
“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 bill co-sponsor state senator Nia Gill, a Democrat.
Representatives for Ice did not respond to questions about where the detainees were sent to.