When New Jersey passed a bill banning new, renewed, or extended contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in August 2021, it came as a shock. Just two years earlier, The Nation reported on the cynical profiteering of deep-blue counties where Democratic officials denounced the Trump administration while generating immense revenue by holding ICE detainees in county jails. While the passage of S3361/A5207 is a movement victory—bringing New Jersey to the national forefront of immigrant justice—it raises the question of what abolishing ICE at the state level entails in the Biden era.
Resistance to ICE collaboration dates back decades in New Jersey, though the Trump years saw intensified activism, from county government meetings disrupted by songs and chants to civil disobedience in the streets. When the pandemic made ICE detention a possible death sentence, ICE detainees at all four New Jersey facilities launched repeated hunger strikes, with those on the outside offering support.
All of this resistance work reached both its peak and its nadir in November 2020, when the Hudson County freeholders (now commissioners) voted 6-3 to renew their contract with ICE over the unanimous opposition of more than one hundred speakers. They had publicly framed their 2018 two-year renewal as an “exit path,” but this time around, County Executive Tom DeGise invoked the incoming Biden administration as a reason to now extend the arrangement for up to ten more years.
The 12-hour county meeting was a feat of organizing, drawing speakers from every walk of life, including those who had been detained in Hudson County and spoke of its horrors, but it also reflected the lack of democratic accountability manifest in New Jersey’s tightly run county machines, where incumbents are insulated from challenge. The Hudson showdown pointed toward the need for a state-level strategy, away from the impenetrable machine fortresses. It also solidified abolition as the movement consensus. However, the risk that ending ICE contracts could lead to transfer of detainees to facilities in other states, away from family or lawyers, has loomed. During the 2018 Hudson contract-renewal debates, the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), which provides pro bono representation to New Yorkers detained in New Jersey, argued against ending the contract. In 2020, NYIFUP instead took a neutral position. Staff unions, however, including many of the immigration attorneys who represent people detained in New Jersey, delivered a statement calling for the end of Hudson’s ICE contract.
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