Few counties in the nation are more solidly Democratic than Essex County, New Jersey. Donald Trump got just 20 percent of the county’s votes in 2016, and last summer, over a thousand people gathered in Newark to protest Trump’s family-separation policy.
Yet, if you scroll through Essex County’s 2018 budget, you’ll find the third-largest entry among its general non-tax revenue streams is $35.6 million for “federal inmate housing,” or immigrant detainees. This is part of a lucrative contract with ICE that dates back to 2011, and, despite the national outrage over Trump’s deportation machine, it shows no signs of being canceled.
Activists opposed the ICE contract from the start; I belong to a broad coalition of advocates for immigrant rights unified in its opposition to profiteering off immigrant suffering. Our Democratic leaders, however, can’t seem to break their complicity with ICE’s cruel regime, because they have grown dependent on ICE money to balance county budgets.
What this means is that North Jersey Democrats claim to support resistance against Trump’s nativism, all while doing ICE’s bidding: Essex, Hudson and Bergen counties, three of the biggest in the state, all take ICE payments to fund parks, roads, and other public goods. They have done so since the 1990s, before the agency we now know as ICE was even created in 2003. And as immigrant detention rose under the Obama administration, Essex County formalized its relationship in a 2011 contract with ICE that paid $108 per detainee per day (it is now $117).
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. was instrumental in shaping this alliance: When he signed the 2011 contract, he proudly called it an “innovative” measure to keep taxes low. (Local media remarked on DiVincenzo’s “ability to turn inmates into dollars.”) The Essex County contract calls immigrant detention a “civil detention system that is not penal in nature,” but that’s a euphemism: All three counties hold detainees in jail facilities.
Counties across the country profit from detaining immigrants for ICE, but no Democratic ones do so on quite the scale of North Jersey’s. According to data at Citylab, only York County in Pennsylvania has a higher daily population of immigrant detainees than New Jersey’s Essex and Hudson counties. The Newark ICE field office, on its part, has the single-highest rate of non-criminal arrests—which is to say, immigrants whose only violation was the status offense of being undocumented—of any in the country.
Most crucially, the North Jersey county ICE contracts blatantly conflict with the policies of the Democratic Party under Governor Phil Murphy, who was elected in 2017 to succeed Chris Christie. Under Murphy, the party has expanded financial aid for undocumented students, and a bold new Immigrant Trust Directive from state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal puts New Jersey at the national forefront of immigrant rights, curtailing nearly all state cooperation with ICE and barring police from even asking about immigration status unless necessary to the “ongoing investigation of a serious offense.” Yet even this progressive measure carves a specific exception for the county contracts, leaving them nearly alone as the last holdouts of New Jersey ICE collaboration.
Some of the logic here is legal: The attorney general’s office explains that it lacks authority over the county contracts. But the reason the contracts persist is political: New Jersey’s county-level machines still have a tremendous amount of influence, so Democrats sidestep their colleagues’ involvement in immigrant detention. A privately run detention center in nearby Elizabeth is where Democratic politicians go to protest and prove their resistance bona fides. They bang on doors and showboat there—at the smallest and by most accounts least-miserable facility—while studiously avoiding the county detention centers.
Even senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker gets caught in this awkward dance. Caught off-guard on television in Elizabeth last year, Booker promised the county facilities were on his “agenda of things to be investigated.” But he never followed through and did not respond to a request for updates. Asked whether county politicians helped shape the exception in the Immigrant Trust Directive, the attorney general’s office also demurred.
So the North Jersey Democrats continue to rake in their ICE cash, which is up by nearly 50 percent since 2015, as quietly as possible. When the Hudson County freeholders (New Jersey’s version of a county commission) were forced by activist pressure to hold a hearing on the renewal of their ICE contract in October 2018, they chose a courtroom that barred cameras. The ACLU filed an emergency motion for access, but to no avail. And when members of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project described being sexually assaulted in ICE custody in the county facility, the charged moment, ready-made for television coverage, instead went under-reported. Hudson County renewed its ICE contract until 2020, on a 6-3 vote.
Meanwhile, in Essex County, the freeholders have ignored extensive evidence of horrendous conditions for detainees for years, insisting—falsely—that the facility is safe and clean. And in Bergen County, Sheriff’s Office Director of Finance Omid Bayati submitted a memorandum in late 2017 arguing that the office was so dependent on ICE billings that any future loss of detainees would foster a “budgetary crisis.” He was ultimately fired, and is now suing the county.
The one bright spot is that resistance and scrutiny have increased. Under Governor Murphy, the state has committed $2.1 million toward a pilot program for universal legal representation for detainees. In Essex County, meanwhile, an explosive recent inspection report by the Department of Homeland Security itself found miserable conditions for detainees, including such sickening details as “slimy, foul-smelling lunch meat,” “raw chicken leaking blood” in refrigerators, and moldy shower stalls. This has strengthened activists’ hands, and after years of spending nothing on detainee legal aid while ICE captives resorted to crowdfunding lawyers in desperation, the Essex County freeholders have just pledged $750,000 toward detainee legal representation.
While not insignificant, that’s about 2 percent of what the county takes from ICE, making it more a public relations move than a substantive commitment to immigrant justice. The American Friends Service Committee estimates full statewide legal coverage at $15.5 million—still less than half of what Essex or Hudson individually take from ICE.
While the House Democrats may have denied Trump money for his border wall, at the local level the unholy alliance between Democrats and ICE is growing, not shrinking. DiVincenzo boasts of improved bond ratings for Essex County, but the reason is partly because of his addiction to that easy ICE money. DiVincenzo’s projected 2019 budget increases projected ICE revenue by approximately twenty percent. That’s not resistance; it’s outright complicity.