Lawmakers in the Senate took testimony on a bill that would bar counties and other local governments from entering into controversial contracts with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to detain immigrants in the country illegally but stopped short of a vote Thursday.
For a little more than 40 minutes, the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee took testimony from immigration advocates — most in favor of the bill, with some opposed — on detention policies that have seen Democratic lawmakers in North Jersey put in the crosshairs of activists they generally agree with.
“The history of immigration detention in New Jersey includes documented cases of neglect and abuse and shocking and avoidable deaths, all wrapped in a culture of secrecy and a lack of transparency,” said Kathy O’Leary, regional coordinator for Pax Christi NJ. “New Jersey has been a willing participant in this system for far too long.”
The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) and State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) would bar state, county, local and private facilities from entering into contracts to detain non-citizens.
Though detentions have slowed amid the pandemic, county-run facilities in Bergen, Hudson and Essex Counties hold lucrative contracts with ICE to detain undocumented immigrants.
Those contracts brought Hudson County as much as $25 million in revenue annually, County Commission Chairman Anthony Vainieri said, though that revenue has dropped sharply amid a pandemic-spurred freeze on detentions. While the county at one point held 600 immigrants, it now 46, he said.
While most of the bill’s supporters argued on moral grounds, claiming variously that detainees were subject to inhumane conditions or that detentions on their own were inhumane, some took a more pragmatic bend.
Longtime immigration attorney Alan Pollack, who chairs the New Jersey State Bar’s immigration law section but spoke in a personal capacity, supported the bill but warned it could harm detainees and their families.
“This is going to result — and we’ve seen it happen under COVID — in transfers between the states, that separated from their loved ones for long term in remote areas and these long distances make it virtually impossible for families to visit them and it also makes it impossible for attorneys to visit them, and such representation becomes cost prohibitive,” he said.
He offered an alternative: Instead of banning detention contracts with ICE, the state could impose restrictions and upon them to guarantee welfare and health care standards, subjecting the agency to fines or contract termination for breaches.
Vainieri argued the same point.
“My first question, and the most important question, is where are these detainees going to go?” he said. “How are their families going to visit them in Louisiana, in Texas, in Arizona? That’s the main priority of why I voted for the bill, my resolution, in my county.”
But he also brought up the money, asking the bill be referred to appropriations committees if it advances, so the state could supplement revenue lost by the counties in the case of a prohibition on ICE contracts.