By Kathy O’Leary, Common Dreams
On Monday August 14, in Trenton, New Jersey, CoreCivic, the private-for-profit prison giant, had its day in court as it argued for an injunction against a 2021 New Jersey law that would close the Elizabeth Detention Center, or EDC, the last operating Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in the state, and one of the oldest and most notorious migrant jails in the United States—one with a three-decade history of neglect and abuse.
Many people may be surprised to learn that President Joe Biden’s administration supports CoreCivic’s lawsuit, arguing that closing the EDC would be “catastrophic” for ICE. The proximity of this particular facility to Newark Liberty Airport and JFK make it “mission critical” to deporting people without citizenship both from New Jersey and from other parts of the country. Despite widespread consensus from communities and a broad range of constituencies across New Jersey who have made explicitly clear they want the EDC shut down, most of the Democrats from our state’s federal delegation in Congress have remained silent as the Biden administration and CoreCivic attempt to sidestep our demands. Those who remain silent include Senator Cory Booker, a progressive champion for people in both the criminal legal system and the immigration system and who has his own bill that calls for ICE to stop using for-profit detention facilities.
New Jersey immigration activists aren’t surprised by this. We’ve known for a long time that Democrats, like Booker, have spoken out of both sides of their mouth on this issue. When former President Donald Trump was in office, they rushed to critique ICE, as if Trump’s overtly xenophobic and racist rhetoric made ICE overnight into a cruel and brutal extrajudicial agency that acts with impunity. Under Trump, the Democrats simply began to acknowledge and to echo what people in detention and advocates had been voicing under three previous administrations. So where are those legislators with their critiques of Biden, as his administration continues to sideline our communities and pour resources into maintaining the unnecessary system of ICE detention that he promised to address?
It was only nine days after Trump’s inauguration in 2017 when Booker led an estimated 800 people in chants up and down the street in front of the Elizabeth Detention Center to demand an end to Trump’s racist and inhumane travel ban. For the next four years, Booker and other local Democrats, including Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), railed against the evils of Trump, whether it was the Muslim Ban or separating parents from their children, using the Elizabeth Detention Center as their backdrop. Rallies, many numbering in the hundreds, featured everyone from local mayors, to candidates for governor, county commissioners, and U.S. congresspeople and senators. They brought with them press and TV cameras to document their outrage, including on Father’s Day morning in 2018, which filmed as a delegation of congresspeople from New Jersey and New York banged on the glass and demanded that an employee of CoreCivic provide entry to the facility.
Local activists, who had been fighting against immigration detention for decades, redoubled their efforts, making it clear that this was a state, county, and local issue as well as a federal one. Detained immigrants staged brave hunger protests throughout New Jersey’s immigration detention centers, which at the time included the EDC and Hudson, Essex, and Bergen County jails. Bowing to unceasing pressure from activists, New Jersey democrats began to speak out against detention contracts—both county contracts and private detention. It was all “blood money,” a term that even Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) adopted. Once Bergen, Hudson, and Essex identified and secured a replacement for the revenue they were receiving from ICE, they began incarcerating different populations of people.
During Trump’s presidency Booker brought the fight to D.C. In June of 2019 he called on the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate abusive practices of ICE after a report was released by The Intercept and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists about how ICE used solitary confinement as a “tool” to manage and punish people in detention. Booker rightly called out the use of solitary confinement as akin to torture. However, the overuse and abuse of solitary by ICE detention centers in New Jersey was not a new development under the Trump Administration, nor was it a new revelation. The use of solitary confinement for people in ICE detention in New Jersey’s county jails was investigated thoroughly by NYU law students in 2015 during the Obama administration. Solitary confinement is also where Boubacar Bah was placed for over 13 hours in 2007 after falling while detained at the EDC instead of being rushed to the hospital for what proved to be a fatal head injury.
In 2021, the New Jersey legislature passed AB5207 which prohibited “State and local entities and private detention facilities from entering into agreement to detain noncitizens.” Menendez and Booker issued a joint statement. In it they referenced the end date of CoreCivic’s contract, August 31, 2023, and referred to “a future without immigration detention facilities in New Jersey.”
So here we are in 2023 and yet another report about the “barbaric” practices being carried out against people in ICE detention has just been released. For the people of New Jersey, that future without immigration detention facilities is within sight. The only migrant jail left in our state is CoreCivic’s Elizabeth Detention Center—an enterprise that is so deeply unpopular that even its landlord is trying to evict CoreCivic from the building. Menendez has been clear that the Biden administration is “making the wrong decision,” but Booker, when pressed by a reporter, said he just has “lots of thoughts.” New Jersey activists want him to put those thoughts into action and pick a side in the fight against CoreCivic. We would welcome his presence in the street leading chants again but we would be happy with a statement that is at least as clear and direct as his own legislation.
Reprinted from Common Dreams