November 12, 2021 marked a major turning point for immigrant justice in New Jersey. For the first time since they opened, not a single immigrant was held at any of the three county-run ICE detention centers in Bergen, Essex, and Hudson Countys.
Closing down all of New Jersey’s ICE detention centers and kicking ICE out of the state for good has long been a major goal for local organizers. The North New Jersey chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (NNJDSA) has worked for the past several years in coalition with the immigrant justice movement in our state to wage a militant battle against the machine politicians keeping these ICE detention centers open. Only through a massive, organized movement that unapologetically demanded the abolition of immigrant detention was our campaign able to achieve the success that it did.
As socialists, we have long called for the abolition of ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) and for the creation of a world where working people are allowed to move freely across borders without fear of incarceration and deportation. Rather than competing for an increasingly shrinking piece of the American Dream, immigrants and non-immigrants must be united in fighting for high paying jobs for all and challenging the power of capitalism together. Unlike many liberal organizations whose focus was on reforming immigrant detention to make the system less overtly cruel, the North Jersey DSA has always kept a clear-eyed vision of an abolitionist future where no person has to fear being picked up by ICE.
At the peak of immigrant detention in New Jersey, hundreds of immigrants were being held every night in the atrocious conditions that make up our state’s ICE detention centers. The three county detention centers were notorious for suicides, medical neglect, sexual assault by guards, and becoming public health nightmares during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Department of Homeland Security’s own inspector general documented rotting food, dirty water, and severe mold at the Essex County detention center. While activists were often accused of exaggeration when comparing ICE detention to concentration camps, it is hard to read reports about the conditions inside these centers and not be reminded of some of the greatest tragedies in human history.
New Jersey is undoubtedly a safer place for immigrants now that ICE has significantly fewer beds to hold detainees in a part of the country that is key to their deportation machine, but the work is not over yet. The Elizabeth Detention Center (EDC), privately run by CoreCivic, quietly renewed its contract with ICE in August of 2021 for an additional two years while Governor Phil Murphy was vacationing in Italy. After he returned, Murphy signed a landmark piece of legislation banning the state and local governments as well as private entities from renewing or entering into ICE contracts, but the EDC was given just enough time for their own renewal to go through.
Activists have long targeted the EDC, which has been not ed in reports for its overuse of solitary confinement, poor ventilation, and food served with maggots, for closure. At the height of Trump’s family separation policy, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Elizabeth Detention Center as a congressional delegation from NY and NJ “forced” their way inside to visit with detainees, promising to fight back against an immigrant system that was ripping kids from their families and forcing them into cages at child prisons near the southern border. Four years later, with the boogeyman of Trump no longer in office, we have seen almost no follow-up from New Jersey Representatives Frank Pallone, Bill Pascrell, and Albio Sires who visited the EDC that day with the last report about the detention center coming out of Rep. Pallone’s office in 2019.
Trump’s outrageous xenophobia and cruelty toward immigrants sparked much of the renewed interest in closing the EDC and allowed Democrats to posture as a humane alternative to the open racism of the Republican Party. In reality, the Democratic Party from the local to the national level, has always been a party of deportations and border militarization that differs in rhetoric, but very little in policy from Republicans. If anyone thought President Biden’s administration would break with the viciousness of Trump’s immigration rules, they need to look no further than images of Haitians at the border being violently expelled through Trump’s Title 42 policy, which Biden has continued up until very recently and is now facing push back in his party to extend. The question immigrant justice organizers must answer is what is to be done with the Elizbeth Detention Center.
While a lawsuit against the EDC makes it way through the legal system and Murphy’s anti-detention law could signal the end of the EDC in 2023, it is clear that we cannot rely on the legal system to close New Jersey’s last immigrant detention center. A militant mass movement is the only guarantee that the EDC will be closed for good.
That is why the Immigrant Justice Working Group of the North Jersey DSA is calling for a recommitment to ending ICE detention in our state and for organizers to once again target the Elizabeth Detention Center for closure.
Our movement already closed three detention centers in New Jersey and there is no reason we can’t close the last one. We need to bring the Elizabeth Detention Center back into the public consciousness through an unapologetic abolitionist campaign that confronts the politicians complicit in upholding its existence and brings people into our movement through street protests, canvassing, and independent electoral work. Join the North New Jersey DSA to help us continue the fight for immigrant justice in the Garden State!