In Hudson County, NJ, Immigrant Detention “Blood Money” is King

A view of Hudson County Correctional Facility, where tens of immigrants are held in substandard conditions and where COVID-19 has ravaged both detainees and employees. But hey, lower taxes! (Photo Credit: Jim Henderson)

Democratic officials in Hudson County, New Jersey planned back in 2018 to phase out a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to jail immigrants. At a recent virtual meeting, more than 150 people made emotional pleas on behalf of the detainees, asking the county freeholders not to renew the contract. No one who called in advocated in favor of re-upping on the deal with ICE.

In spite of this, as reported on by Matt Katz for the Gothamist, whose beat is ICE detention and refugees, and others, the freeholders voted 6-3 to extend the contract. Ultimately, it seems, cash is king.

According to Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise and the other executives who voted in favor of the renewal, the county needs this money. Hudson Co. receives $120 in revenue per day per immigrant for jailing immigrants and, at present, houses about 100 people in its county jail. Without this revenue, taxes will increase—and you don’t want that, do you?

Of course, no one likes to pay more in taxes, least of all New Jerseyans, who already pay the highest property taxes of any state in America. Still, keeping undocumented immigrants locked up has its own obvious cost: a human one. At what point do financial considerations exceed moral concerns? What are the lives of these detainees truly worth to those in power?

What is especially galling to activists is the apparent bipartisan willingness to place profit over people as part of the immigration debate. DeGise, the county executive who proposed the reversal of the earlier phase-out, is a Democrat. The entire board of freeholders is populated by Democrats, which is not unexpected in Hudson County, a Democratic Party stronghold. Caridad Rodriguez, Anthony Vainieri, and Albert Cifelli, all of whom cited a belief in “Democratic values” as part of their re-election campaigns, voted in favor of renewing the contract.

How, then, does a partnership with ICE, an agency cited for a litany of abuses and which some in the progressive wing in the party have called for to abolish outright, align with Democratic values? What, pray tell, are those values?

Making matters worse is the notion that these detainees, already kept in suspect conditions (in Katz’s article, one of the attorneys representing the immigrants at the county jail cites their being kept in their cells for all but a half-hour of the day with absent or lacking medical care and sanitary supplies), only represent a fraction of the jail’s true capacity. Potentially, Hudson County can hold hundreds more immigrants, the capabilities of which are not lost on ICE, to be sure.

These substandard living conditions are not news either. Over the past half a decade, several detainees have died, over 100 medical grievances have been filed, basic quality of life provisions have been denied, and the use of physical force has been all too frequent. Throw COVID-19 into the mix and the picture is a bleak one—and not just for the detainees. Five employees have died since the start of the pandemic and dozens more have fallen ill, with accusations of insufficient PPE coming from the families of those workers. These people aren’t confined to the facility. They’re returning home, putting other members of their communities at risk of infection. In other words, it’s not as if the risk of spread is closed off herein.

These are legitimate human rights concerns. As several of the freeholders would characterize the reservations of Hudson County residents and immigrant advocates alike, however, they represent the beliefs of a small subset of the population or otherwise capture the views of individuals who are “just crazy.” This delegitimization of activist energy as some “radical” or illogical force is well familiar to leftists, some of whom see this as another turn in the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.

Proponents of the ICE contract renewal also have used false or misleading justifications for maintaining the current arrangement. Tom DeGise’s office cited statistics of crimes once perpetrated by detainees in defense of the move, but they are now only being held for immigration violations, not crimes. Caridad Rodriguez, herself once an immigrant, likewise framed the issue in terms of keeping her community safe. For the non-violent offenders who haven’t committed major crimes, what is preventing the release you yourself have promised, Ms. Rodriguez?

All of this adds up to a grim situation that casts Hudson County and New Jersey as a whole in a harsh light when considering the other ICE detention contracts in place at other jails/detention centers in the state. With COVID rates spiking in and out of county jails, the outlook almost certainly will get worse. Meanwhile, NJ’s top politicians, notably Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez and Governor Phil Murphy, have been largely silent on the matter.

Once more, this begs the question: is it worth it? For all the human rights abuses recorded in the Hudson County jail and the elevated risk of infection the conditions within mean for detainees, employees, and the surrounding communities, perhaps most significantly for some members of the public, the revenue earned will not be so substantial. If current occupancy holds for 2021, Hudson County will only net $4 million from the ICE deal, a sum opponents of the extension argue can be made up elsewhere. Almost certainly, the replacement option would be a morally cleaner one.

On every front, the reversal of Hudson County’s earlier pledge to phase out its contract with ICE is a losing proposition. The Democrats vocally supporting this flip-flop or otherwise complicit in their silence would do well to consider how this “blood money,” as some advocates have labeled it, fits in with their definition of “values.”

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