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KOZMA: Hudson County made wrong move by extending ICE contract

Column: With Liberty and Justice for All

New Jersey's Hudson County recently broke a promise and continued a long-standing deal with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). For a variety of reasons, this harms detained immigrants.  – Photo by Wikimedia

As we recently celebrated Thanksgiving, let us spare a moment for the dozens of detained immigrants in the Hudson County Correctional Facility unable to celebrate with their families. 

Late on the night of Nov. 24, Hudson County's Board of Chosen Freeholders broke a key promise by extending a controversial contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Hudson County first signed this contract with ICE in 1996 to rent out most of the county jail to immigrant detainees.

But in 2018, in response to public backlash, the Board pledged to let the contract expire by the end of 2020. The intention was a "path to exit" by 2020, according to Hudson County executive Tom DeGise. And today, only approximately 100 detainees remain from a high of 800 in 2018. But at DeGise's urging, the freeholders voted to renew a 10-year contract in defiance of their prior commitments.

Only three voted no. This is one of the most liberal counties in one of the country's most liberal states. All of Hudson County's freeholders are Democrats. It is frankly appalling — this should not be a tough call and it should not be a close vote.  

The Hudson County Correctional Facility's conditions have come under fire in recent years, with watchdog groups finding violations of due process and instances of cruel and unusual treatment. Between 2014 and 2016, 121 detainees submitted medical complaints with corrective action only taken in a mere handful of cases. In 2018, the nonprofit Human Rights First (HRF) conducted an investigation.

Here are some of the most disturbing results: medical treatment is poor, several detainees are reluctant to get routine dental check-ups because dentists there only perform extractions and an elderly man was denied eye examination and eye drops, causing his eyes to swell.

Many reported being denied medications for everything from high blood pressure to epilepsy to diabetes to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One woman used a bra as a sling after a clavicle fracture because officials said an actual sling would be a "suicide risk."

One might doubt the sincerity of ICE's commitment to preventing suicide — psychologist Dr. Cristina Muñiz de la Peña concluded that "Most men and (women) interviewed report not seeking mental health services to avoid being placed in the ‘suicide room.'"

An asylum seeker suffering from gastrointestinal bleeding said an officer told him: "F*** your problems. F*** your bleeding. Don't make problems for me."  

Women faced particular indignities, including "being given only two or three pairs of underwear for the week" and "receiving an insufficient number of sanitary pads, leaving them no other choice but to purchase them at the commissary for high prices."  

The facility practices solitary confinement, a practice labeled as torture by the United  Nations. While most cases of solitary confinement are for violence against staff or other detainees, many detainees report being confined as retaliation for complaining about substandard conditions.

HRF interviewed one detainee placed in confinement for 30 days "for merely failing to follow an order to immediately return to his pod so that he could finish reading the list of legal service providers."  

Let us be fair. Many officers are trying their best in a difficult situation and many detainees are a genuine security risk. But when you have a detainee saying, "I'd rather be in a federal prison with double the sentence than be here," that is a problem.  

This is not an issue with a single facility, but with a sprawling archipelago of detention camps that serve little public safety rationale. Human Rights Watch notes that in the 2018 fiscal year, 51 percent of detainees posed no risk whatsoever.

Even the former director of ICE, John Sandweg, said that "only a small percentage of those in ICE detention have been convicted of a violent crime. Many have never even been charged with a criminal offense. ICE can quickly reduce the detained population without endangering our communities."

It is not racist to want border security or law and order, but our strategy must be smart, humane and evidence-based. Many former detainees described their conditions firsthand in a virtual Zoom hearing on Tuesday, mirroring the complaints described in HRF's report.

It is worth noting that of more than 150 residents offering public comment during the marathon 10-hour hearing, not a single one spoke in favor of the contract.

Legal advocates argued that the pro-ICE freeholders' assertions were misleading, as they had suggested that immigrants not convicted of crimes had nothing to worry about or that the expiration of the contract would somehow necessitate massive tax hikes.

Just imagine listening to 10 hours of testimony from the people who actually suffered under this system, and then voting to extend it anyway.  

There is no moral, legal, public safety, economic or political justification for a continued blank check for immigration detention. Freeholders William O'Dea, Joel Torres and Fanny  Cedeno made the right move in voting down the contract. As O'Dea said, "I don’t think when it comes to a civil rights issue that dollars really matter."

It is unfortunate that their colleagues do not seem to see it that way.

Thomas Kozma is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy junior majoring in planning and public policy. His column, “With Liberty and Justice for All,” runs on alternate Thursdays.

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