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The Elizabeth Detention Center continues to operate despite calls for its closure from immigrant advocates and elected officials.
Most recently, two of New Jersey’s Congress members, Reps. Rob Menendez and Bonnie Watson Coleman, urged the federal Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to close the facility, the last immigration detention center operating in the state. The center held 211 people as of Monday, according to ICE.
“We have made it clear, both from legislative action and community action, that we have no desire to have a poorly managed for-profit detention center in our vibrant immigrant community that runs counter to our values,” Menendez said Monday in an interview with NorthJersey.com.
Elizabeth and the center are both in the Democrat’s 8th Congressional District.
The letter was sent on Sept. 27 to federal Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and to Patrick Lechleitner, acting director of ICE. It asked them to immediately terminate ICE’s contract with CoreCivic, one of the world’s largest prison companies, which runs the detention center.
The facility on Evans Street, which can hold up to 300 detainees, houses people accused of federal immigration violations. Detainees are usually asylum seekers, others waiting for immigration cases to be resolved and those who have incurred criminal violations.
The letter comes during a legal battle over a New Jersey law prohibiting local jails from entering into new contracts to house immigration detainees. CoreCivic has sued Gov. Phil Murphy and Attorney General Matthew Platkin, claiming the statute, AB 5207, is unconstitutional and superseded by federal law.
A federal judge in August ruled in the company’s favor, allowing the site to stay open, but the state has appealed.
Letter urges ‘immediate steps’ to end contract
In the letter, Watson Coleman and Menendez urged the federal agencies to “take immediate steps to terminate” the government’s contract with CoreCivic. They also asked them to move those housed at the facility to “alternatives to detention.” Such programs allow detainees 18 years and older who have a pending immigration case to remain in their community pending the outcome of the case.
Menendez, the son of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, said he heard from Homeland Security that the agency is putting together information before issuing a response.
“We’ll continue to follow up … there is a time-sensitive element to this,” he said. “While we appreciate the need for them to go through their administrative process, we’re eager to move this issue forward and deal with it on a substantive level.”
In August, according to a an ICE report, CoreCivic and the agency reached a contract extension for the company to continue operating the center for another year for $19.9 million.
Two deaths cited at Elizabeth detention center
But Menendez and Watson Coleman said the center should close due to its record of lawsuits, complaints, and media reports alleging inhumane and abusive conditions over nearly three decades, including the deaths of two detainees.
During a rally in Newark in September calling for the closure of detention centers nationwide, a former detainee at the site, Juan Regalado, told NorthJersey.com that he suffered through servings of poor food and unsanitary conditions and feared deportation to his home country of Honduras.
Watson Coleman could not be reached by phone or email for comment.
Critics of the center commended the two Democrats for their efforts.
Gabriela Viera, senior advocacy manager for Washington, D.C.-based Detention Watch Network, said in a statement, “It’s reassuring to see the state’s congressional representatives like Reps. Watson Coleman and Menendez push back against this decision and fight to defend New Jerseyans’ long-sought victories.”
ICE cites positive inspection reports
Emilio Dabul, an ICE spokesperson, said any comments about the letter should come from Mayorkas’ office. Dabul also pointed out that the inspections of the center by the Office of the Inspector General in November 2022 and May 2023 gave it a “superior” rating.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to an email for comment.
Todd Field, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, did not comment directly on the letter. Instead, he said, “It is important to remember that CoreCivic is subject to robust oversight and accountability by our partners at ICE.”
Ricardo Kaulessar covers race, immigration and culture for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.