Immigrant rights protesters march through the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota on June 30, 2018. Fibonacci Blue / Wikimedia Commons
Toggle caption Photo by Fibonacci Blue / Wikimedia Commons

In New Jersey, Activists Are Learning What “Abolish ICE” Means in the Biden Era

Post-Trump, immigrant justice is far out of the spotlight. But many immigrant rights activists, like those organizing to shutter a dismal ICE facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, haven't given up, despite a tough slog of fighting the Trump-like policies of Joe Biden.

Resistance to immigrant detention in New Jersey will end where it began, in a desolate industrial district on the periphery of Elizabeth, a mid-sized working-class city just south of Newark. There, in 1995, detainees at the Esmor detention center made national news rioting against the inhumane conditions they faced. A quarter-century later, what is now the Elizabeth Detention Center (EDC) stands as the last ICE jail in New Jersey.

As such, it provides a valuable window into the movement to abolish ICE in the Biden era. New Jersey drew national attention when three of its four ICE jails closed in 2021, the result of a years-long grassroots struggle.

But at a time when the Biden administration’s immigration policies barely differ from many of Trump’s, the media attention and the mass rallies of the Trump years have faded from sight, and the very coiner of the phrase “Abolish ICE” has abandoned it to promote faux-progressive politicians, the uphill struggle to actually abolish ICE and the prison-industrial complex that spawned it continues outside the spotlight.

A History of Brutality

EDC’s origins are sordid even by the standards of the private prison boom of the 1980s and ’90s. James Slattery and Morris Horn perfected the art of profiting from human misery while running “one of the most notorious welfare hotels in New York City.” Expanding their skill set into carceral entrepreneurship, they founded Esmor Correctional Services Corporation, and after running some crassly exploitative halfway houses, they won a government contract for immigrant detention.

From the start, EDC earned a reputation for cruelty, which resulted in the 1995 uprising by its three hundred detainees. Women prisoners complained about sexual abuse and guards spying on them in showers, while men told of being chained to toilets, degraded with ethnic slurs, and physically abused. When they set up a barricade inside the facility, police eventually lobbed a flash grenade at it and charged, injuring twenty. Protesters’ demands included “we need our freedom” and “we should not be used as an avenue to acquire wealth.”

Read on at Jacobin