A look inside New Jersey’s ‘broken’ immigration detention system

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

After a federal report detailed deplorable conditions for immigrants detained at the Essex County Jail, NJTV News wondered about health and safety practices at similar facilities in the state. Senior Correspondent David Cruz put the question to WNYC’s immigration reporter Matt Katz.

Cruz: So we just did a story this week on conditions at the Essex County Correctional Facility — the conditions there were terrible, which, should we be surprised that the conditions were so terrible, and is that common?

Katz: I was surprised how blunt the report was. Often these government reports — particularly this was from Department of Homeland Security, which ICE is a part of — this from their own people, it’s the inspector general. And I have read many of these, and this was blunt, just about the conditions there, about the situation there, and that surprised me. But in general, immigrants in this country, and there’s now 400,000 of them who are detained, are held like prisoners. They’re in orange jumpsuits. They’re served prison food. These are not people necessarily who’ve committed crimes; they’re people who are often undocumented. So the fact that they were being served hamburgers that look spoiled and looked like burnt toast, some people would say, “Well, you know, that’s what you get when you’re a prisoner.” So that did not surprise me, but how very blunt DHS was about this was surprising and might indicate that there are bigger problems there than compared to other facilities.

Cruz: Should we expect that condition — I mean not just in New Jersey, New York, in this metro area — but out in Texas, in Arizona. I mean, do we know that conditions there any better or worse?

Katz: It’s hard to tell. I’ve toured all the facilities in New Jersey, and it depends on what metric you use. So, Bergen County — only New York residents there. Bergen County Jail holds New York detainees. These are New Yorkers who are picked up by ICE. There, you cannot hug your relative when they visit, which is different from Hudson County and Essex County. So you have a five-year-old son, comes to visit you in jail, you have to look at him through the glass. That would be considered a brutal condition. Hudson County, they don’t have game pieces because the warden is concerned about what they could do with the game pieces, so they’re not allowed to play chess or checkers. That would be considered a difficult condition. And then Essex County, beyond the conditions and the condition of the facility, most detainees do not have attorneys, which makes them more likely to be deported. Hudson and Bergen Counties, most of the immigrant detainees in those jails are from New York and New York state — Bill de Blasio, the mayor, and Andrew Cuomo, the governor, have a fund to pay for lawyers for detained immigrants. Gov. Murphy recently allocated a little bit of money for that, but it does not go to cover most of, or even all of the detainees there — only a small percentage. So in fact, if you’re detained in Essex, which means you’re a New Jersey resident, you have a higher chance therefore of getting deported than if you’re detained in Hudson or Bergen.

Cruz: Yeah. And there’s this sort of like, immigrant detention industrial complex. This is big money, big business, right? Who’s making money?

Katz: Well, the counties are making money, in this case. I mean, there’s four facilities in New Jersey. Elizabeth has the smallest. That’s a privately run facility, so a company there is making money. Essex has 800 immigrants — this is the second largest county jail that holds immigrants in the country — and they collect about $40 million a year. Unclear how much of that goes into caring for the detainees and paying for salaries for guards, but certainly the county is making some profit off of this because that’s why they continue to have this contract. And Bergen and Hudson have slightly smaller immigrant detainee populations. But this stat is amazing to me: both those jails, most of the people there currently are immigrant detainees. So they’re getting their revenue, these counties, from ICE, essentially, to sustain these jails because the jail population of regular criminals has decreased so much that now these immigrant detainees are filling most of their beds. County officials have told me if they get rid of these contracts — and Hudson is working toward getting rid of their contract in 2020 — but if they don’t find another way of backfilling their budgets, taxes are going to have to go up.

Cruz: And enforcement is way up, or does it just seem to be way up? ICE enforcement.

Katz: It’s way up. ICE enforcement is way up in New Jersey. ICE’s office, which is in Newark, is more aggressive, by and large, than other places around the country, and they also are arresting a far higher number of noncriminal immigrants for lacking papers, for example, than they have in the past.

Cruz: This has got to have been an eye-opener for you, this new beat. I mean it’s not like covering Chris Christie, is it?

Katz: No, it’s not, and I’ve learned so much. And part of what I’ve learned is that, you know, it’s easy to say, “This is a new president, and we’ve changed our policies so dramatically.” But, you know, ICE was locking people up at the Essex County Jail during the Obama administration, and a lot of these policies were in place long before Trump, and they’re maybe being enforced differently. But this is a broken immigration system that has been, you know, fixed and tried to fix, then mended with these weird solutions that have just rendered more and more people split from their families, and imprisoned, and struggling to figure out how to, you know, become a real permanent resident and a citizen of this country and there’s just not much of a way right now.