Congressmen detail ‘stark’ conditions inside Elizabeth ICE facility holding detained immigrants
A delegation of lawmakers toured the Elizabeth detention center holding immigrant detainees for nearly three hours Wednesday and emerged from the facility to detail what they saw.
“It’s stark. They don’t have separate dormitories. They have a cot and they’re all together,” Rep. Frank Pallone said as he left the detention center.
The group included Pallone, a Democrat representing New Jersey and three New York congressmen -- Rep. Gregory Meeks, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Rep. Adriano Espaillat.
Pallone and the other congressmen were reluctant to describe the conditions in the facility in detail, saying the detention center had advance warning of their visit, so they might not have seen the type of conditions detainees usually experienced.
In a statement released later in the day, Pallone said it had been a year since his last visit to the Elizabeth detention center and the conditions have not changed.
He said he spoke with more than 40 detainees during Wednesday’s visit.
“Each person I spoke to had a powerful story to tell,” Pallone said. “I met a Christian woman from Kenya who faced religious persecution and violence. I spoke to a man from Venezuela and a man from a Central Asian country both facing state sponsored political persecution. I also heard from a Central American woman who was forced out of her country for setting up a program to help survivors of domestic violence.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has contracts with facilities across the nation to hold detainees, who often include immigrants who wait months for deportation hearings. The Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility is run by CoreCivic, a private company that owns and operates prisons.
The media was not permitted to accompany the congressional delegation into the facility.
Congressmen said most of the detainees they spoke with didn’t come to the U.S. for economic opportunity, but were escaping violence or religious persecution in their home countries. One person Jeffries spoke with had a green card and was detained for a misdemeanor, he said.
“There’s an individual who had a misdemeanor conviction 15 years ago -- whose daughter is a member of the Air Force, whose entire family are U.S. citizens -- who’s at risk of being deported,” Jeffries said.
A group of protesters staged a demonstration outside the Elizabeth facility as the congressmen were inside. They held signs, including “Ban ICE” and “Amazon: No Tech for ICE.”
Some of the protesters heckled the congressmen as they spoke at the press conference after their tour, criticizing them for not doing enough to help detained immigrants.
“You’re normalizing this!” one protester shouted out during the press conference outside the facility. “Shut them down!” another yelled.
In New Jersey, ICE also has contracts with Essex, Hudson and Bergen counties to hold detainees in county jails for a daily fee of more than $100 per person.
Earlier this year, an inspection of conditions immigrant detainees faced in four facilities around the country -- including the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark -- found rotting food, decrepit bathrooms, a lack of outdoor space and other “egregious violations of detention standards,” according to a federal report.
Essex County officials said the problems had been corrected. Local officials have faced pressure from some immigrant advocates and civil rights groups to drop their contracts with ICE and close detention facilities in county jails.
Pallone was asked about the Essex County facility after touring the Elizabeth detention center.
“I can’t comment on the other facilities but we will continue to do oversight of the facilities and make sure -- whether they’re public, private or a combination -- that they have to be up to snuff,” Pallone said.
Other immigrant advocates have said they don’t want the New Jersey facilities to close because it would likely mean immigrant detainees would be sent out of state, far from their families and attorneys.
Though some activists have called for ICE to be shut down, Pallone said he did not want to see the immigration agency abolished. A member of the immigration advocacy groups protesting outside the Elizabeth facility said Pallone should take a stronger stance against ICE.
“This is modern day slavery,” Stacey Gregg said. “We don’t need ICE.”