They marched more than three miles in Newark, determined to stop what could be one of the largest immigration detention centers in the country.
Holding signs that read “Don’t Detain, Don’t Deport, Keep Families Together” and “No Human Being Is Illegal,” scores of people gathered in Newark to protest a proposed detention facility that would house hundreds of immigrants.
The protesters, many of them advocates of more lenient immigration policies, believe U.S. officials should rely less on arresting and detaining undocumented immigrants, and more on helping legalize those who do not pose a danger to the public.
“This detention center symbolically represents the huge focus that our government has paid to jailing and deporting immigrants without regard to the impact on our families and communities,” said Amy Gottlieb, director of the Immigrant Rights Program for the American Friends Service Committee.
“We need to say that the laws are fundamentally unfair, and they need to be fixed in a way that keeps families together, keeps communities together, does not demonize or scapegoat people, and recognizes the fundamental value that immigrants bring to our communities.”
Recently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which was looking for a new detention facility near the New York metropolitan area, said it had entered into negotiations with Essex County for a 2,700-bed facility.
A service agreement for the facility has not been finalized, but Essex County officials have proposed expanding the existing Essex County Correctional Facility to accommodate the additional immigrant detainees. The facility already houses some immigration detainees at a per-bed rate of $105 per day, according to ICE.
“ICE has tentatively selected Essex County, N.J., to be awarded an Intergovernmental Service Agreement (IGSA) for the operation and management of 2,700 beds for immigration detainees,” said Harold Ort, an ICE spokesman, in a written statement. “At this time, ICE and Essex County continue to work through the details of this tentative selection. If and when a formal selection occurs, the appropriate notifications will be made.”
Those who oppose the project include many immigration advocates who say that people who have no criminal records should not be jailed for immigration violations, which are civil matters.
“People often assume that these people are criminals, but they are everyday women, everyday men, everyday youth,” said a protester, Karol Ruiz, a community organizer with Wind of the Spirit, a non-profit group in Morristown, N.J. that assists immigrants. “There are students incarcerated, there are mothers incarcerated, caring loving fathers and husbands incarcerated, and we wanted to show solidarity with them.”
The protesters said they want immigration officials to make greater use of what they say are more humane and cost-effective solutions to immigrant detention, such as releasing people to their families while they await legal proceedings or allowing people to wear ankle monitoring bracelets to ensure compliance with court dates.
Many advocates, who had hoped immigration enforcement would turn less hard-line under the Obama administration, say they are disillusioned by how the undocumented have fared under the president. They say that deportations, for instance, have reached record levels.
“We aren’t willing to come to a middle (ground) in detention,” Gottlieb said. “We need to look at every single case individually and if there is evidence that a person represents a danger to society, then there maybe a reason to detain that person.”
“[The United States] detains virtually every immigrant who faces deportation proceedings at sometime, somewhere or in some fashion,” she said. “We are proposing alternatives to detention."
Ort declined to comment on the protesters’ statements beyond saying: “Regarding the rallies today, ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference.”
Immigrants facing deportation or otherwise being held in federal custody are currently subjected to mandatory detention and are housed in a variety of facilities around the country, from detention centers run by private contractors to local jails that receive reimbursement from the federal government for each immigrant detainee.
New Jersey has 1,639 beds for immigrant detainees in five facilities around the state, according to ICE. They are housed at a privately run detention center in Elizabeth and correctional facilities in Essex, Monmouth, Hudson and Bergen counties.
Advocates for more lenient immigration policies long have assailed the U.S. system of detaining undocumented immigrants. They say the immigration detention system is largely profit-driven, benefitting the ever-growing business of private prison management. They also say that more detention beds will spur more arrests and jailing of undocumented immigrants who do not pose a safety threat, and therefore should not be warehoused like criminals.
Addressing the crowd at the protest, Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale issued a challenge to President Obama.
"President Obama, you can’t force Congress to reform [the immigration system], but can you please guide your federal agency in a way that is more consistent with justice and peace," said Kaper-Dale to cheers and applause. "At the moment, there are lots of families being ruined in the wake of your destructive storm."
Human and civil rights groups have expressed concerns about the checkered history of immigration detention facilities – both those that are run by ICE, and those that are run and operated by other entities, whether private or public, for ICE.
The immigration detention system has been dogged over the last two decades by problems ranging from little to no access to legal counsel for those housed in such facilities, to abuse by guards, to lack of proper medical services that have been said to have led to detainee deaths.
In New Jersey, in particular, immigration detention has been a sensitive issue.
It was there that one of the most controversial immigration detention centers, known as Esmor, operated in the mid-1990’s in Elizabeth.
The privately-run facility, which housed non-criminal detainees – most of them asylum seekers at the time – came under fire for its routine shackling of detainees to furniture in attorney meeting rooms as they spoke with their lawyers, giving the detainees spoiled food, keeping attorneys waiting hours to see their clients, and verbal and physical abuse by guards.
Esmor made national headlines after detainees rioted – as a team of federal investigators had arrived in New Jersey from Washington D.C. to look into reports of abuse and inhumane conditions – making the facility uninhabitable. Now known as the Elizabeth Detention Center, the facility reopened under the management of a new private contractor, Corrections Corporation of American, or CCA.
But despite improvements at the CCA facility, problems and scandals have persisted at immigration detention centers and jails that house detainees for ICE.
Now, the Obama administration, which more than a year ago vowed that it would address detention problems, is said to view the proposed facility as a chance to put the controversial system of immigration detention in a new light.
Federal authorities have said that their plans for new facilities would open a new chapter in immigrant detention that would include less of a prison-like environment for detainees – many of whom have committed civil, not criminal, violations. The new facilities also would have better medical care and tighter supervision by immigration officials, they have said.
At the protest, however, advocates said they were skeptical.
“The government says it's planning on reforming the system and moving towards a new civil type of detention,” Gottlieb said. “We are deeply concerned about accountability given the history, and we are deeply concerned that the more they say detention is going to be nice and civil, the more detention there is. And we believe detention should be stopped."
This story contains material from The Associated Press.