On July 17, after telling the public they would not take a vote that night, the freeholders renewed a 10-year, $10 million contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The board members admitted they hadn’t read the contract before renewing it, and as of Aug. 9, none had seen copies yet.
The contract allows the county 60 days to cancel, which immigration activists are urging the freeholders to do. Activists speaking at the Aug. 9 meeting blasted freeholders for stalling and not allowing public input before the cancellation deadline.
In a divided vote, six of the nine freeholders voted to wait until their Sept. 27 meeting to hear a report from a newly-appointed committee investigating issues at the Hudson County Correctional Facility, including those involving 800 detainees for which the county is paid $120 per day by ICE. (The jail also holds approximately 400 people on criminal charges.)
Six inmates have died at the jail over the last eighteen months. The committee will look into issues involving health, food, and psychological problems highlighted by several critical reports. The committee has been authorized to review issues involving ICE detainees.
Because a massive protest is being planned by local and regional anti-ICE groups for the next freeholder meeting on Sept. 13, Freeholder Vice Chairman Bill O’Dea tried to get the board to relocate that meeting to the larger Public School No. 11 in Jersey City, instead of the county building on Pavonia Avenue.
He said fire codes on the freeholder chamber will force security to turn away many of the people who might wish to participate. But Freeholder Chairman Anthony Vainieri opposed moving the meeting, and encouraged O’Dea and other freeholders to hold a “forum” instead of a meeting, with only four freeholders. That means, however, that the four would not be able to vote, as a board, on any action, such as canceling.
As of now, the meeting will take place, but only in the usual small space.
Freeholders voted without seeing the contract
Anti-ICE activists said the freeholder vote in July didn’t give the public an opportunity to speak out on the contract.
Freeholder Joel Torres said the Aug. 9 vote to delay public comment until late September made the freeholders “seem like a joke” to the public. At the board’s caucus before the contract renewal, Torres had pleaded with the freeholders to postpone the vote so they could actually read the contract.
“We were told it was exactly the same contract we signed with ICE in 2011, but we voted without seeing it,” O’Dea said.
But activists, speaking out against the vote, said many of the freeholders currently on the board are not the same freeholders who voted last agreement. In fact, the only current freeholder to vote on the 2011 contract was O’Dea.
“This is a humanitarian issue,” said Hoboken Councilwoman Emily Jabbour at the meeting. Jabbour was instrumental in getting the Hoboken City Council to unanimously support a resolution in that town condemning the freeholder contract vote.
Many of the activists were from Hoboken, including ranking members of the Hoboken Democratic Party. Some said they were members of various Socialist groups.
Protestors also came from Secaucus, Weehawken, and Jersey City, as well as from state and regional immigration rights groups.
“We were blindsided by the vote,” said Phil Cohen, chairman of the Hoboken Democrats.
County Attorney Donato Battista told the protestors that for a renewal, it was unnecessary for the board to actually read the contract.
“We were blindsided by the vote.” – Phil Cohen
Responding to local calls to abolish the ICE contract, some of the freeholders and County Executive Tom DeGise have argued that if Hudson County does, the detainees will be shipped to facilities elsewhere, away from family members and other support.
Vainieri claimed that during a freeholder tour of the jail on Aug. 6, detainees said they preferred to stay local. Activists, however, pointed out that being interviewed in front of the staff who detains them might not provide honest appraisals.
“When we talked to some of them away from everybody else, we got a different answer,” O’Dea said prior to the freeholder meeting.
Craig Guy, chief of staff for DeGise, said that the jail has allowed immigrant rights groups to come see improvements made to the jail. He said conditions at the Hudson County facility are likely better than any other ICE detention center in the nation.
Democrats nationwide have called for the disbanding of ICE, but Vainieri argued that it’s a national issue that the freeholders cannot do anything about.
“We’re concerned about the detainees,” he said. “What we can do is make sure the conditions are good for them.”
O’Dea said the county has the ability to “take the profit” factor out of the contract by making sure the funds the county gets from ICE are redirected back into providing care for the detainees.
Eliminating the ICE contract would affect jobs at the jail, a consequence that divided activists. The county facility has about 400 criminal inmates and about 800 detainees. If the ICE contract were eliminated, the county would likely have to reduce staff.
O’Dea, however, said the county will have to consider that issue in the future as jail populations decline.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.