When New Jersey passed a bill banning new, renewed, or extended contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in August 2021, it came as a shock. Just two years earlier, The Nation reported on the cynical profiteering of deep-blue counties where Democratic officials denounced the Trump administration while generating immense revenue by holding ICE detainees in county jails. While the passage of S3361/A5207 is a movement victory—bringing New Jersey to the national forefront of immigrant justice—it raises the question of what abolishing ICE at the state level entails in the Biden era.
Resistance to ICE collaboration dates back decades in New Jersey, though the Trump years saw intensified activism, from county government meetings disrupted by songs and chants to civil disobedience in the streets. When the pandemic made ICE detention a possible death sentence, ICE detainees at all four New Jersey facilities launched repeated hunger strikes, with those on the outside offering support.
All of this resistance work reached both its peak and its nadir in November 2020, when the Hudson County freeholders (now commissioners) voted 6-3 to renew their contract with ICE over the unanimous opposition of more than one hundred speakers. They had publicly framed their 2018 two-year renewal as an “exit path,” but this time around, County Executive Tom DeGise invoked the incoming Biden administration as a reason to now extend the arrangement for up to ten more years.
The 12-hour county meeting was a feat of organizing, drawing speakers from every walk of life, including those who had been detained in Hudson County and spoke of its horrors, but it also reflected the lack of democratic accountability manifest in New Jersey’s tightly run county machines, where incumbents are insulated from challenge. The Hudson showdown pointed toward the need for a state-level strategy, away from the impenetrable machine fortresses. It also solidified abolition as the movement consensus. However, the risk that ending ICE contracts could lead to transfer of detainees to facilities in other states, away from family or lawyers, has loomed. During the 2018 Hudson contract-renewal debates, the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), which provides pro bono representation to New Yorkers detained in New Jersey, argued against ending the contract. In 2020, NYIFUP instead took a neutral position. Staff unions, however, including many of the immigration attorneys who represent people detained in New Jersey, delivered a statement calling for the end of Hudson’s ICE contract.
Concerns over transfers remained, but attention shifted to the ways ICE contracts also helped produce detention. When the New Jersey attorney general’s office documented law-enforcement cooperation with ICE, it showed wildly disproportionate levels of ICE access to inmates, notifications to ICE, and even continued detention of people eligible for release in Essex County—indeed, in the sanctuary city of Newark, where the jail resides. Asked to account for this, county officials explained, “Because of our contract with ICE, the agency has staff that closely monitors the facility and all those who are housed there.” They also falsely asserted that they were “obligated” to carry out “ICE requests that an inmate be detained on a warrant.”
The state bill met opposition from anti-immigrant groups as well as Hudson County Board of Commissioners Chair Anthony Vainieri, who claimed that without ICE revenue “taxes will increase”—testifying an hour before voting to raise his own salary. But immigrant-rights activists and organizations pushed hard for its passage.
And then, as the bill slowly progressed through a rocky, nerve-wracking series of committees and hearings, the political landscape of New Jersey suddenly changed. In late April, Essex County officials announced plans to end their ICE contract. This inspired Hudson County officials—the very ones who had just committed to another 10 years of ICE detention five months earlier—to declare themselves “determined” to end their contract. Bergen County stopped taking new arrivals, and the landlords who lease the Elizabeth Detention Center to CoreCivic, the infamous private prison management company—perhaps tired of the relentless phone zaps to Kean University and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, where they sit on boards and honorary positions—filed suit to break their lease.
The bill finally passed in late June. It promises that New Jersey will, in time, abolish ICE. But while no new or renewed ICE contracts can advance in New Jersey, the new law does not immediately affect existing ones. Indeed, while Governor Phil Murphy hesitated to sign the bill—dragging it out over two months as he listened to lobbying from the New Jersey State Bar Association and took a vacation in Italy—CoreCivic squeezed in one final renewal of its ICE contract, extending its relationship with the Elizabeth Detention Center to 2023 (the lawsuit from the landlord is still pending). Early media coverage of Essex County’s decision uncritically reported press releases as fact; The New York Times inaccurately declared that Essex County was “ending” its ICE contract when it has done no such thing. Instead, it has merely “depopulated” the jail of detainees; its actual contract runs through 2026, and nothing prohibits it from resuming immigrant detention until then.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Democrats have mostly proven eager to distance themselves from ICE—without applying upward pressure within the party to secure releases rather than transfers, the current top priority of immigrant-rights activists. The Essex County commissioners, to their credit, responded to community demands and issued a letter to Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez calling on them to use their influence to secure more-humane ICE policies, but few others have followed suit. Though Hudson County Commissioner Albert Cifelli repeatedly expressed concern about transfers in justifying the country’s ICE renewal in November 2020, for instance, he and his colleagues appear to have lost interest in the issue now that transfers are actually happening.
“They didn’t get the message,” says Marcial Morales, who organized hunger strikes in Essex and Bergen counties and since his release from detention has helped coordinate mutual-aid funds for detainee commissary services and phone access. The law may be a win, but, he adds, “we are calling for releases.” Kathy O’Leary, a longtime coordinator for the Catholic group Pax Christi, invites Booker and Menendez, with their influence over Biden’s Department of Homeland Security policies, “to join us in a campaign for just closures of the remaining facilities that results in fewer people in cages, not just in shuffling bodies so that counties and private corporations can continue to generate revenue from the incarceration of our community members.”
Instead, Democratic officials have turned their eyes toward new revenue streams. The most galling aspect of New Jersey’s rejection of ICE, for many activists, is that it’s premised on simply shifting toward new forms of carceral finance. County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo described the Essex’s move as enabled by a lucrative new contract with nearby Union County to house its jail inmates, and Hudson officials openly hunger for similar contracts. Instead of rethinking county budget dependence on incarceration, they are trading one set of caged bodies for another. It’s a perverse and disappointing way to abolish ICE, but the struggle continues. As Tania Mattos, an organizer with the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund who has played a central role in the Abolish ICE–New York/New Jersey coalition, notes, “it is absolutely necessary” that ICE abolition and prison abolition work be fused together; “only when we see these two issues as intertwined will it lead us to liberation and safety.”