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The silent deception of Newark’s ‘sanctuary city’ status

The city houses one of the three largest daily populations of immigrant detainees in the country.

Newark DHS police officers keep an eye on immigration activists and one Trump supporter protesting the Trump administration's decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on September 6, 2017. (Credit: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
Newark DHS police officers keep an eye on immigration activists and one Trump supporter protesting the Trump administration's decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on September 6, 2017. (Credit: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

Last month, Newark, New Jersey police defied the city’s “sanctuary” status when they quietly turned over an undocumented resident with no criminal record to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. 

The case has shed light on the nature of Newark’s sanctuary status. While progressive Mayor Ras Baraka has spoken out against the Trump administration’s immigration policies and has referred to ICE agents as slave-catchers,” the reality is that the city actually houses nearly 700 detainees inside the county jail within its city limits, making it one of the largest daily populations of immigrant detainees in the country.

Newark itself does not contract with ICE; its detainees are the result of an Essex County contract signed in 2011. But Baraka’s tough talk hasn’t extended to his city’s own enormous detainee population, obscuring the immigrant suffering going on within Newark’s borders.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka attends a unity rally on the steps of City Hall in downtown Newark in support of immigrants on January 18, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. (Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka attends a unity rally on the steps of City Hall in downtown Newark in support of immigrants on January 18, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. (Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The problem is widespread. In the past several years, much attention has focused on self-professed sanctuary cities that protect immigrants by refusing to cooperate with ICE. In practice, however, sanctuary is often a “false promise,” imprecisely defined or rendered moot through such mechanisms as data-sharing with ICE, whose agents can still maraud at will through any city.

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In reality, the local authority with the strongest connection to ICE — and therefore the most opportunity to offer real sanctuary — is often the county. According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a majority of U.S. counties voluntarily work with ICE, despite no legal obligation to so, from sending notification when an immigrant will be released from custody to detaining them in county correctional facilities — all for a fee that could pay for a night’s stay at a hotel in Las Vegas.

As The Nation reported in July, across the country, cities are pushing back against these kinds of agreements. For instance, Sacramento ended its contract with ICE this past June. Shortly thereafter, a conservative suburb in Austin voted to end its ICE contract. Atlanta, Georgia, which calls itself a “welcoming city” to avoid the political connotations of sanctuary, suspended its contract to hold further detainees at its jail this summer.

Meanwhile, cities like Newark avoid acknowledging their complicity with ICE while claiming sanctuary status. Santa Ana, located in Orange County, proclaims itself a sanctuary city despite containing two county facilities that hold detainees. And although Boston calls itself a sanctuary city, it’s located in Suffolk County, which houses nearly 200 detainees in its jail. Last year, federal authorities arrested 50 immigrants in Massachusetts, more than a third of which had no criminal record.

These realities are especially troubling in Democratic cities, where politicians have helped harden immigrant detention measures long before Trump began his term. When President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, he essentially created the immigration detention system we have today. Framed as a response to terrorism and concerns about refugees, the law widened what counted as deportable offenses. Even legal immigrants, like green card holders, were suddenly at risk for deportation over minor infractions. In preparation for the growing numbers of people who would be detained as their cases moved through the legal system, more detention centers opened.

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The Esmor company, which had managed halfway houses and welfare hotels, underbid competitors in 1993 to open a detention center in a former warehouse in an industrial park in a bleak section of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Conveniently located near Newark and New York airports, it became a Dantean hell for the hundreds of men and women, mainly asylum seekers from Africa, detained there. As a report by Immigration and Naturalization Services, the predecessor to ICE, detailed, detainees complained repeatedly to guards and supervisors about deplorable conditions and harassment by poorly trained guards who committed civil rights violations like destroying religious texts like the Quran.

After a riot in 1995 and a subsequent lawsuit filed by former detainees, the facility reopened as the Elizabeth Detention Center under the management of private prison company CoreCivic. It also became a magnet for Democratic protest. This June, a New Jersey and New York congressional delegation, showed up there unannounced and even banged on doors demanding access to the building.

New Jersey Democratic lawmakers attempt to enter an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey. (Credit: Screenshot, CNN)
New Jersey Democratic lawmakers attempt to enter an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey. (Credit: Screenshot, CNN)

The Essex County jail in Newark holds over twice as many detainees as the Elizabeth center, yet has inspired no protest from Democratic party leaders. These politicians “seem more comfortable” going to the private center run by the federal government, “using the pain of immigrant detainees as a platform to protest against Trump immigration policies and score political points without any accountability,” local immigrant rights activist and organizer Alejandro Jaramillo told ThinkProgress. “It seems that they will protest against detention centers that are being run by their political adversaries and ignore those run by their own political party.”

Democratic collaboration with ICE stretches back many years. Essex County’s relationship with ICE began during the Obama presidency, an era of massive deportations. Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, an old-school machine politician whose grip on local Democrats is so tight they didn’t call him out on his support of reactionary Republican Gov. Chris Christie in 2013, embraced immigrant detention as an innovative” way to keep taxes low in 2011. A 2012 report exposed the flawed bidding process that nakedly favored the Education and Health Centers of America, the nonprofit offshoot of the for-profit Community Education Centers (whose CEO and employees happened to donate over $21,000 to county executive DiVincenzo).

From the start, a number of groups have tracked the consistent abusive practices toward detained immigrants in Essex County: denial of access to lawyers or law books, physical violence, foul food, denial of basic hygienic practices, and much more. The record is extensive and ongoing; the latest investigation, in early 2018, found conditions “harsh and often inhumane.”

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Meanwhile, New Jersey’s ICE office, located in Newark, employs a spokesperson, Emilio K. Dabul, who has extensive ties to Islamophobic hate groups and arrests undocumented residents with no criminal convictions at dramatically higher rates than the national average (40 percent, contrasted to 26 percent nationally). That means a typical detainee in the county jail is someone like Fritz Enriquez, a Cuban national who has lived in the United States for 39 years and had just renewed his permanent residency card, but was grabbed by ICE over a 1999 marijuana-related arrest and now faces deportation, according to his wife.

The office of Augusto Amador, city councilman for the Ironbound section of Newark who spearheaded an immigrant tribute statue unveiled in May, hung up the phone when ThinkProgress called to ask whether he had ever addressed the detainees located in his ward.

Newark residents are livid. Recent county freeholders meetings (New Jersey’s equivalent of a county commission, and the signatories of the ICE contract) have seen dozens of residents express opposition to the city’s collaboration with ICE. At the July 19 meeting, rather than address their own constituents, the freeholders fled the room as the crowd sang, “Which side are you on?” 

When Sen. Cory Booker (D) visited the Elizabeth center last month, he expected applause, and was visibly caught off-guard when a reporter asked him about the county detention centers. “Am I gonna go tomorrow? No. Am I gonna go next week? No,” he said, adding that visiting the county detention centers was on his “agenda of things to be investigated.” Like other North Jersey Democrats, Booker is an avid DiVincenzo supporter.

New Jersey immigrant rights organizations are largely opposed to the state’s detention centers. The American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Immigrants Rights Program and First Friends of NJ/NY are concerned that closing the county detention facilities will result in immigrants being detained far from their families. In an email to ThinkProgress, AFSC added that “the need to abolish ICE and eliminate the use of detention entirely is more important than ever.” Movimiento Cosecha and Mijente also take abolitionist positions on ICE and advocate that counties terminate their contracts immediately.

As Cosecha’s #WeWon’tBeComplicit guide explains, “The next step in the movement to fight the detention and deportation machine is to make it impossible for ICE to function by pulling institutional support away from ICE,” including businesses, cities, and counties that contract with it.

These efforts are having an effect. Adjacent to Newark, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and the city council, as well as the Hoboken City Council, now believe their own Hudson County should break its contract with ICE. Even Sen. Robert Menendez (D) signaled agreement. Yet leaders in Newark remain silent to date, leaving little clarity about what it means to claim sanctuary status while remaining complicit with immigrant detention.


UPDATE (9/13/2018): In response to this piece, Mayor Baraka issued a statement to ThinkProgress, stating that the incident of the undocumented resident who was turned over to ICE is “under police investigation” and is “the very first time an immigrant with no criminal record has been turned over to ICE.” Baraka added that the Newark “City government has no control over the county jail … I have spoken out against the housing of ICE detainees in Newark.” He emphasized that “Essex and Hudson Counties have long histories of working with federal immigration authorities, and, in the age of Trump, that cooperation must end.”

This post was also updated to include the AFSC’s position on abolishing ICE.